Public Service Broadcasting: Refectory, Leeds

Tonight’s support, All We Are, only take up a little bit of the stage but they make a decent noise with solid beats and basslines tramping along underneath layers of guitar melodies lashed with button-pushy, knob-twiddly effects. Altogether it’s an intriguing mound of sounds and when the vocals lift out over the top of it all with their gaelic-influenced harmonies I am suddenly quite glad that I ran (briefly) in order to get to the refectory for the start of the gig. There’s no just going through the motions, every second has plenty of feeling squeezed into it. The songs aren’t exactly the stuff of fist-waving and energetic bouncing around but they are neat little pockets of well-constructed, thought through, enthusiastically alternative pop.

They give a really tight performance, totally settled with each other on stage and there’s an air of professionalism about them that is often lacking with support acts – they give the impression that they know exactly how they want things to go and then just make it happen.
The short set glides by quickly and, although it never really threatens to raise the roof, as a Sunday night warm up for a band that are probably a bit more cerebral than most it works perfectly.

Public Service Broadcasting tend to do things differently – they add their own flavour to things – so it’s not surprising that, instead of just projecting a sign on big screens, they have knocked together a funny little cartoon warning of what may become of you should you ruin the gig by filming large chunks on your phone (more or less that your friends will disown you and your dog will run off with next door’s cat), although it is agreed that a quick snap is fine. All very light hearted and polite; a theme that will go on to underpin the evening.

Then Messrs. Wrigglesworth and Willgoose take up their positions (Wrigglesworth behind his drum kit and Willgoose behind a control panel from the Starship Enterprise) accompanied by their live show companions, Mr. B and J.F. Abraham (visual effects and flugelhorn respectively).
What follows is really a multi-media artwork rather than a gig. The stage is packed with instruments and computers and accompanying all that there are two big screens in the background and two towers of old TVs flanking it all. It starts slowly, strolling into ‘Sputnik’, from last year’s album ‘The Race for Space’, as the small army of televisions wake up showing scratchy old newsreel footage of man’s first exploration outside of earth’s gravity. Finally, my eyes are allowed to see exactly what my ears have been seeing since I first listened to that album and I’m sold. It’s a record that causes awe and excitement partly because of the music and partly because of the news reel audios’ subject matter and none of that is lost here tonight.
Any sluggishness that may have been hanging around post Sunday lunch is brushed off when they move on to ‘Signal 30’, the squawks and growls of angry drivers scramble over urgent guitar riffs and give us all a much needed slap to the face.

A notable spot of oddness that occurs at a PSB gig is that all the on stage banter comes from Willgoose’s sampler – a classic “BBC English” voice addresses the crowd with humorous, stunted sentences and chatter – it’s a bit of a concept performance. Each address seems to submerge you further in a universe where you interact with a faceless presence, generated from speakers as opposed to the actual people on stage.

There is a lot to appreciate here. The audio and visual aspects are absorbing but equally so is the sheer variation of what the band are controlling on stage. Whilst playing songs they spend time filming each other (the images are then weaved in amongst the old footage on the big screens), Willgoose plays a phrase on keyboard or guitar, creates a loop and continues to play the next bit of the song – even playing the guitar and theremin at the same time at one point. They look like a group of 1950s physics students that have escaped the lab but make no mistake; they are a group of very talented and creative masters. The use of old audio snippets and footage, often with daunting subject matter – venturing into the unknown or being dragged into world war – means that the evening isn’t the most energised at times but there are moments when the magnitude of the subject matter is what gets the goose bumps going. Add to that the way PSB enhance the drama with the musical accompaniment and you get something pretty special.

It’s a show awash with nostalgia, but not just because the visuals are old (any dipshit could play scratchy videos on a big screen), it’s because of the moments in history that they pick. Moments when we, as a species, have excelled and shown what can be done with the application of science, technology and balls. It’s a nice reminder of why we aren’t the waste of skin that a lot of people would have you believe these days. The sinister opening of ‘If War Should Come’ is theatre incarnate and I am suddenly aware of sense that the audience are perhaps steeling themselves for something. Several minutes of beat-accompanied stoicism is followed by a sizeable cheer and applause that is laced with a certain degree of national pride – I’m suddenly thinking these guys should do the next World Cup song.

The sense of realisation that descends with the final line “…I have to tell you now, this country is at war” is palpable but rapidly lifted with the sound of an unmistakable engine booming out from the stage and ‘Spitfire’ adds a tad more turgidity to that bit under everyone’s nose.

Back to post-war planet earth and another biggy from the latest album; ‘The Other Side’. The tension of the middle section, not diminished by the fact that everyone here has listened to this track many times, is suddenly relieved as the band burst into life to crash the song to a victorious finish as Houston regains contact with Apollo 8. The love for the space exploration is kept at a high with an energetic leap into ‘Go!’ and even the significant number of people here who weren’t around in 1969 feel like they somehow experienced the moon landing first hand. This track brings a definite buzz and it deservedly receives the first really prolonged applause of the evening.

Keeping things going into the encore, the now shiny-suited Willgoose rattles off the glitzy, funk-splurge that is the main riff of ‘Gagarin’, as his brass section appear front and centre to add a finishing touch of shine to what is probably the most upbeat PSB track. All that is left is the old chum, ‘Everest’, which is greeted with warmth from the punters. The epitome of PSB’s uncanny knack of emphasising the mood of a story with musical accompaniment, this track finally seems to shake off the Sunday night restraint being felt by all but the five drunk girls just in front of me, possibly due to the very sing-alongable melody running right the way through it. It’s the sort of tune that lets you almost smell the cold, high altitude air that you’d expect at the top of the former “Peak 15” – the sort of tune that is still being whistled and hummed down the stairs, towards the toilets 10 minutes after the house lights have come up.

Tonight has shown that a Public Service Broadcasting gig isn’t so much a gig in the traditional sense but more of an exhibition of storytelling. You don’t listen to it, you watch it with your ears – it’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.

I loved it.