Review: Public Service Broadcasting – Limelight 1, Belfast
During times of civil unrest and political crisis *ahem Brexit* Public Service Broadcasting’s unique brand of socio-political musical montage holds particular resonance.
Belfast’s love for the band was well and truly sealed after their last show in the city for BBC Biggest Weekend. They premiered 4 exclusive new pieces of music about the Titanic as their tribute to “the people who built her here in Belfast, the spirit of optimism of the age she represented, and the 1513 people who died when she sank at sea.” The gig was in the Titanic slipways and with the vibrant yellow Samson and Goliath cranes behind the stage, it was a particularly poignant, powerful gig.
Public Service Broadcasting made Belfast feel very special that day so it’s no surprise that the three piece English band were welcomed back for a sold out show. Indeed, after talking to a few people at the gig I learned that they first heard of the band at Biggest Weekend, loved them and were now back to see them as a result.
Layering spoken word, historical archive recordings with their own instrumentals, PSB’s sound and subject matter is one moment hopeful, the next angered, but always creative and inspiring.
Easing us into the evening with some self described “Dark melodic electronica” was local artist Ryan Vail. Active since 2011, Vail’s sound has been described as “minimalist” and this seems quite apparent when he comes on stage almost unnoticed, beginning his set wordlessly.
Beginning with ‘Inside’ the first track from his new album Distorted Shadows what begins as some unimposing beats evolves into pan-pipe esque, celestial vocal samples.
Expecting electronica only, it’s a pleasant surprise whenever Vail begins introducing his own vocals. These vocals are almost whispered. It all contributes to a sound that is moody and introspective.
Hunched over the decks, the track really builds momentum with an extended solo that is considerably heavier with distorted sounds. The flashing lights on stage enhance the set however it does feel slightly misplaced having EDM this early in the evening.
Ryan Vail leaves the audience intrigued with a short set giving us a taster. The description of “dark” forms a metaphorical but also physically important strand to his music in that it feels suited best in the dark i.e late at night/early in the morning, in a club atmosphere as opposed to the precursor to a gig.
PSB begin their set with the Titanic-themed songs ‘The Unsinkable Ship’ and ‘White Star Liner’. For a sold out gig you’d expect a raucous crowd however throughout the show it’s striking how silent the audience are, showing a kind of reverence for the music, perhaps absorbed by the accompanying visuals and historical video clips which continue to form an important part of PSB’s sets.
“They were some new songs, but we have some older songs too” says bowtie donning guitarist J. Willgoose Esq. before moving on to ‘Theme from PSB’.
PSB have previously stated that the aim of their music is to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the present” and ‘Theme from PSB’ serves as the perfect introduction to some of the band’s back catalogue.
It’s an odd atmosphere in Limelight for this particular gig. The audience is sparing with their applause and as the band play hits such as ‘Sputnik’ about the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, there isn’t really opportunity to sing along. It isn’t your average gig by any stretch. The audience have no choice but to immerse themselves in the engrossing show of audio and visuals.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, Willgoose outlined how “We’re about using the technology of the day to take stuff from the past and recontextualise it in the present, rather than being some kind of retro-throwback to some bygone age when Britain was great.”
This recontextualisation is no more apparent than on songs such as ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ about the coal mining industry in Wales from their 2017 album Every Valley (the whole album was about the coal mining industry in Wales and the community that it affected.)
Indeed, there’s a very sobering, sombre element to PSB’s music as we view the past from our 2019 lens. However, the uplifting ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ unveils more than just a bleak look at the working conditions for Welsh miners.
Willgoose introduces ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ with a few words about the women’s support group in the eighties in Wales which inspired the track. In a press release for Every Valley Willgoose describes how in doing research for the album “…one of the stories that leapt out at me most obviously was of the role of women’s support groups in the strike. It seemed like a genuine political awakening for a whole generation of women, who suddenly came to realise both their potential and the power they had to shape the society they were part of; I really wanted to try to do their movement justice.”
Dedication to posterity is undoubtedly an important thread throughout PSB’s music and during a time of increasing awareness of the need for gender equality ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ is a particular highlight of the gig. It’s extremely moving and receives the biggest applause from the audience. It is preceded by one of the band’s most well-known hits ‘Progress’ which feels like an apt juxtaposition.
‘Go!’ from the 2015 album The Race for Space is a goosebump-inducing performance that energises the audience, finally providing an opportunity for the audience to sing along, albeit merely the repeated words of “Go!” in differing intonations. The audience grasp the opportunity nonetheless. Indeed, at one point Willgoose flatly remarks “You’re very loud.”
PSB provide a generous encore comprised of the eagerly awaited, sax infused ‘Gagarin’. It’s an energised, joyous track that the audience can’t resist dancing to, having had little opportunity up to this point. PSB join in on the opportunity too with drummer, Wigglesworth, suddenly dancing in a spacesuit. It’s a celebration of Yuri Gagarin, the “world’s first cosmonaut.”
The band finish their set with another tribute to human accomplishment – Everest. The extended version ‘Everest’ ends the gig on a synthy high with much enthusiasm from the audience.
Who knows what’s next for Public Service Broadcasting? The band posted on Twitter to say that their Limelight gig would be their “last ‘regular’ headline show for quite some time” In the meantime, at least the UK’s current political landscape is providing a bounty of inspiration.