I’ve written before about the advantage of having a venue as good as the Islington Assembly Hall on my doorstep. Reasonably priced, excellent sound, good views and an inventive booking policy means that is worth taking a punt when a well regarded band tours.
A couple of friends whose judgement I trust had raved about Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) live. I’d got “Spitfire” from their debut LP on a Rough Trade compilation. It piqued my interest but not quite enough to buy any of their records. When they announced a fundraising gig for Bowel Cancer in Islington, it seemed like a night out supporting a good cause would be a “win win” solution.
It had a personal significance for the band. PSB’s songwriter and guitarist J. Willgoose esq wrote:
In late September last year my wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer at the age of 33, totally out of the blue. She has now completed her treatment and we’re hopeful for the best possible outcome, so as a band we really wanted to try to do something positive to help promote the great work Bowel Cancer UK do for patients and their families.
Support came from Haiku Salut (who I unfortunately missed due to Arsenal’s Champion’s League fixture nearby), comedians Rob Deering (who acted as MC for the evening) and Ed Bryne. Deering’s musical comedy slotted in well with the band and Byrne’s set featured riffs on the perils of living in Muswell Hill, parenthood and marriage couldn’t fail to hit with a bit of a homer of an audience. We even got a raffle of test pressings of PSB early releases between the main set and the encores.
PSB arrived on stage a little later than planned, due to a few technical glitches. For those unfamiliar with the band, they are essentially instrumental but with vocals. Just to clarify the contradiction, they use samples of public information films to provide the voices for their blend of krautrock, prog and techno. It is much more approachable than it sounds with the use of live onstage filming plus archive footage upping the visual entertainment quotient. It took me back to the nineties when I’d seen the Chemical Brothers, Orbital and the Orb in their pomp. PSB’s music is as direct as these bands with many featuring four to the floor energy.
PSB’s audience clearly have a lot of love for the band and it is well founded. Despite the lack of direct communication with the audience (Willgoose used samples triggered from his array of electronics to talk the audience in a plummy voice except from a heartfelt “thank you” at the end of the gig), there is obviously a connection. The band have a DVD out now of their recent gig at Brixton Academy, a sell out concert in a venue much bigger than the Assembly Hall.
It will be interesting to see where the band take their career. Two LPs in and they have skilfully nailed their raison d’être. It helps that the samples they use has a resonance with the audience. “Night Mail” features WH Auden’s poem, chopped up a little to greater emphasise the melody. “Spitfire” (“this is a song about a plane” goes the introduction) and “Everest” connect with their British audience and the Space Race themes of “Go” and “Gagarin” (which featured a dancing astronaut) are highly nostalgic. It’s a canny move to bring out a geeky brass section, which rather bizarrely punctuates their sound in a way not too dissimilar to the Beggar And Co horns from the eighties. That the band are dressed in Joe Wilkinson Open University lecturer chic only adds to the sense of fun.
The staging of “Other Side” was particularly cleverly staged. It features the dialogue between mission control and Apollo 8 crew. As the spaceship orbits the moon, it loses contact as it goes to the back side of its trajectory. The stage goes dark and the music falls away. There is genuine tension which is only broken when Gene Kranz in Houston resumes his conversation with Jim Lovell. This plays out brilliantly live.
So from a neutral perspective, a good time was had by all. The mix of comedy and the immediacy of PSB’s material ensured the evening barrelled along. I’d thoroughly recommend them if you fancied a night out, particularly at a festival.
Let’s see what’s around the corner from them. They’ve clearly got wit, intelligence and ear for melody. They just need to make sure that the joke doesn’t wear thin.
You can donate to Bowel Cancer UK here.