It’s half four in the morning in a converted French airport hangar on a cold December night and Public Service Broadcasting are about to take to the stage. A friend mentions that he caught them a few months prior. “Gets old after about 20 minutes”, he notes. And so it proved. For all the London outfit’s panache, slick attention to detail and truly unique output, something key was missing on that early morning.
Smash cut to Dublin a year and a half later and PSB are an act strengthened by additional personnel and an excellent new album. The Race for Space dominates proceedings tonight, though there’s plenty of room for highlights from Inform – Educate – Entertain and a brief dip into The War Room EP along the way. It’s a strange night, all told. Technical difficulties result in a 15-minute delay and many exasperated looks towards the sound desk from J. Willgoose, Esq. The frontman doesn’t dare open his mouth, however, for that would betray his gimmick of deferring to his computer for robotic, city-specific communication. It’s cute, but the well runs dry long before he hits the ‘sleep’ button.
A clever and playfully dark pre-gig plea to keep phones at bay goes over quite well even if most of the audience’s view of the dual backdrop screens is obscured by equipment and the lady next to me apparently takes said PSA as a challenge, wielding her pointless box of light at least once per song. Hey, they tried. ‘Sputnik’ kicks things off, ascending brilliantly and indeed literally as a replica of the satellite rises to the heavens just as Wrigglesworth kicks things up a gear from behind his kit with welcome extra percussion provided by touring member and apparent Philip K. Dick character J.F. Abraham. It’s all a little Plan 9 from Outer Space but it works. The model serves as disco ball and distorted video screen as a stack of CRT televisions left and right of the stage add further knowing kitsch.
‘Signal 30’ is a bolt from the blue, its kinetic rush of aggressive archive material, pounding drums and razor-sharp guitar nothing short of irresistible. ‘Theme from PSB’ keeps things moving as Willgoose reaches for the banjo. It’s a credit to Public Service Broadcasting that they manage to juggle so many musical facets when dealing with such specific foundations without it all blowing up in their face. That said, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that all of this boils down to an exceptionally well-constructed art installation and its curators may as well be playing inside a giant glass box. There’s a nervous tension in the air as songs wind down or descend towards a grace note before a somewhat restless crowd. At times, it’s all a bit, well, this…
Thankfully, for the most part you get the appropriate ‘could hear a pin drop’ feeling at the right times, such as when Willgoose ushers in the lone, delicate piano notes of ‘E.V.A.’. So kudos, then, to the guy behind me who kept his hollers to song intros; ‘Night Mail’, for instance, receiving a resounding, ‘THE BEST!!’ courtesy of his strained vocal chords. He thinks it’s the best, you see! To be fair, it’s absolutely terrific, most notably when strobe lights invade and everything travels up, up, up. ‘Spitfire’ excels in a similar regard while ‘Valentina’, dispatched in between with haunting vocal assistance from support act Smoke Fairies, pierces through in a more elegant way.
And yet, once more, something is missing. It feels odd when ‘Go!’ and ‘Gagarin’ register as tepid, the latter not helped whatsoever by a guy in a fucking spacesuit showing up to throw some shapes. It does make for a perfect illustration of the tricky marriage playing out up above; a party atmosphere whipped up in the middle of sombre, searching movements. ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Tomorrow’ connect in such a regard, as does ‘Everest’, here dedicated to those affected by recent tragic events in Nepal. You almost feel a little awful to criticise something so well-intentioned and often impeccably-executed, but the feeling remains that the live Public Service Broadcast is something to be hugely admired if not necessarily embraced.
Public Service Broadcasting photographed for State by Kieran Frost