Public Service Broadcasting
The last time I saw Public Service broascasting, I was standing in a field in Cheshire on a warm Friday evening hearing them do material from their then-recent The Race for Space in the open air below the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank at the 2016 Bluedot Festival worked a treat. But they were playing second fiddle to Underworld that night. How would they get on here, headlining, in early spring in Middlesbrough? Well, for a start the venue was packed. The Empire is a renovated Vitorian theatre, so in the dark, filled with people, with dark corners aplenty and a faintly Stygian, cavernous feel to the place, the augurs were good.
The support were a great fit too. Jane Weaver’s material had a vocal hint of Juila Holter, only with a little more muscle, and her fairly short set flew past.
As one might expect, most of PSB’s material tonight is taken from their most recent album, Every Valley. But as the lights go down, it’s the sounds of David Bowie’s Sound and Vison that fills the room to set the scene. And then they’re on, banked by turning winding gears. They begin with the opening three songs of Every Valley, a mix of the delicate Dylan Thomas-flecked beginning of Every Valley itself, then the thunderous The Pit. It’s when we get to People Will Always Need Coal that the poignacy of the images and the music really starts to bite. The samples and visuals from from 70s NCB information and marketing films talk about there being 400 years of coal under the valleys of South Wales. And today they’re still there, because the men who extracted it, and the pits they worked in, were dispensed with. The communities that surrounded them have buckled, but not broken under the assault they suffered during that process. But they survive, and the spirit that keeps them alive still finds voice in soings like the lovely They Gave Me A Lamp.
But it’s not exclusively material from Every Valley they play. The main part of the set has more reflective moments from the wonderful album The Race for Space. Valentina, and the The Other Side, which comes later, are much more still and reflective than the stuff they play from first album. All the favourites are there, such as Night Train and Spitfire, to push thingas along at a ratlling pace. The one thing that jars with me (but it’s not the band’s fault) is that optimistic songs like Songs like Progress seem thoroughly at odds with a society intent of undoing lots of the kinds of progress these albums salute and embrace.
Live, the band do sound a little more punchy and insistent than in their recordings. This is no bad thing, especially in the space we’re in. It gives them a power, energy impetus to go with the visuals. The interplay of archive footage and the music is familiar to anyone who’s seen PSB before, but over time it has been refined, and now it works beautifully, underpinning and reinforcing the music. The main set finishes with the call and repsonse of Go! before they leave the stage, though we know they’re coming back for the encore…
And the encore is storming. All Out is a throbbing, angry rant of a song, accompanied by footage of the massed ranks of police at Orgreave. J Wilgoose Esq is also quick to remind us that Support Orgreave t-shirts are on sale at the merch stall. It’s also at this point that he reminds us that, altough Every Valley is predominantly about South Wales, he is more than aware that many of the same things apply to insdustrial towns like Middlesbrough hit in much the same way, so he dedicates the songs to us too. Then we’re into a jumping version of Gagarin, brass and all, with the customary astronauts joining the band on stage, before proceedings finish with, what else but Everest.
The evening is a triumph: a performance by a band at the peak of their powers.
Sound and Vision (David Bowie)
People Will Always Need Coal
Theme From PSB
They Gave Me a Lamp
The Other Side