Sold out since before Christmas and with an 80-deep queue slinkying down Abbey Street at 7pm – this gig is a sleeper hit. The demographic slice is clear – this is a crowd with a major in STEM. If the world ends tonight or worse, the internet breaks, then (in large friendly letters) DON’T PANIC, these folks can rebuild it.
The evening’s entertainment opens with Pat Dam Smith, showcasing songs from his recent and upcoming solo albums. From the start – Joe Meek Shadows guitar, trip hop beats, downbeat sentiment – ‘Safe to say it’s been a bad, bad day’ he holds the already quite substantial crowd. His voice a velvet, rangey Yim Yames baritone with the touch of a more melodic Cathal Coughlan. His lyrics paint wistful fixations on teenage love, and his smoothly phrased vocals and sparse, heartland rock washes of melodic guitar, piano and beats get a warm response.
In his TedX talk, PSB’s chief boffin – he wears a tweed jacket and bow-tie on stage, gives TedX talks, and is called J. Willgoose, Esq. – talks about the need in live music to have the potential for error, to have ‘the layer upon layer of tiny timing flaws that tell the audience through their brains and ears that what’s happening in front of them is actually live’. His point is that the potential for the negative is part of what defines the positive. Hence, though PSB are known for their use of samples, live looping and archive BFI footage, their stage act tonight is thrillingly, high-wire tension, 10,000 volts at 50 amps, live, baby, live.
The voice of Richard Burton saluting ‘the kings of the underworld’ from 2017’s Every Valley opens the set before pitching headlong into the rolling drums and sliding synth surge of ‘The Pit’ and the ‘People will always need coal’ from the same album. Live, the album is the answer to the question – how do you engage with dark material and surface difficult political issues without insincerity or taking sides? They pick at this rich emotional vein through the melodic chordal telecaster of ‘Go to the Road’ and the Kraftwerkian ‘Progress’ with its hollow nostalgia of 60’s optimism – ‘machines will do the work, men will supervise the machines’. But this is foremost a high energy live experience – when the defiant feminist politique of ‘They Gave Me a Lamp’ surges through the crowd it is broken down into the hats-off thrill of getting a rock crowd to clap along in 2:4. This is impressively both big and clever.
Some of the older tunes demonstrate significant stagecraft – the ability to hold a crowd silent with 50-year old Russian space telemetry on ‘E.V.A.’, the hold on imagination that means rapturous cheers for the reappearing Apollo 8 module on ‘The Other Side’, the two-note Earth Wind and Fire riffing cosmonaut funk of ‘Gagarin’, the stinging tele lines on ‘Night Mail’ and the heavier synth bass and live brass section punch of ‘Korolev’. Perhaps because of the absence of a traditional gang-leader vocalist the audience steps forward to participate – clapping to create the rhythmic bed for the improvised polyrhythms of ‘Signal 30’, adding air and power to ‘Go!’ by chanting every systems’ check and singing back the keys melody of the closer ‘Everest’. This is an engaged and passionate crowd, wowed by the combination of superbly pure sound quality, loose and vital arrangements that focus on the main melodic themes and throughout, some, frankly awesome, drumming. The highlights are both old – the engineering glory adrenalin surge of the right stuff on ‘Spitire’ and new – the crushingly heavy ‘All Out’ – or how to start a riot with a tune about a riot. It’s a triumph and a band at their peak and everyone here knows it.