Public Service Broadcasting – Live Review – Festival of the Moon, Wakefield
By David Schuster, September 2019
“The toilets are through the door on the right, just past the moon,” says the helpful lady on the ticket desk. There’s a slight pause whilst we exchange a glance. “That sounds a bit random doesn’t it?,” she laughs. Yes, it does, but I take her point; there’s a beautiful 9-metre scale replica of the moon dominating one side of Wakefield’s Old Market Hall. The sculpture, by artist Luke Jerram, has been the centre piece of Wakefield’s Festival of the Moon. It’s every bit as gorgeous as the real thing (although a lot easier to get selfies with) and tonight it’s shining benevolently on the audience for Public Service Broadcasting.
As we’re waiting for the band to come on stage the lights dim to blue, casting their hue onto the sculpture. At the same time, Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’, with its famous line “Blue, blue, electric blue” plays over the PA. Blue lights, blue moon, electric blue: I like what you did there, folks.
The English art-rock trio are here performing their 2015 album, The Race for Space, in full, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing – and it really couldn’t be more appropriate. The band’s unique approach to using historic news footage against complex soundscapes forged from a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments is ideally suited to such a landmark in human achievement.
“Nobility of endeavour”
In fact, ‘sound and vision’ perfectly summarises what PSB do so well, it’s a merging of music, social history and video clips which produces an almost immersive experience. The stage is backed by a huge screen, flanked either side by two smaller ones. The main shows footage of the focus of the story, whilst the sides allow duplication of the main image, overlaid with live footage of the band members performing. Above the band hangs a Sputnik-style satellite, covered with LEDs that allow it to throb with colour.
The show commences with John F Kennedy’s unforgettable 1962 speech to Congress: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” However cynically you view the motivations, there’s no doubt that it’s as perfect a summary of nobility of endeavour as you’re ever likely to get. Just five tumultuous years later that aspiration was realised, though Kennedy was no longer alive to see it.
The speech gives way seamlessly into the metronomic introduction to ‘Sputnik’ heralding the first man made object to orbit the Earth, it’s beat echoing the pulse sent out by the satellite, heard by millions around the world. This flows into a suitably technological sounding rhythm. However, it’s about as far as you can get from Kraftwerk-esque po-faced electronica, J. Willgoose Esquire, along with Messrs Wrigglesworth and Abraham clearly enjoy what they do; grinning broadly as they pluck, hit, press and strum a bewildering array of instruments.
The songs chronicle some of the key figures and events in the Cold War race for space between the American and Russian superpowers. There’s Yuri Gagarin, the unknown Soviet pilot, who became an overnight superstar as the first human to journey into outer space. He was followed shortly by Valentina Tereshkova, who more than 50 years later remains the first and only woman to complete a solo space mission. Both astronaut and cosmonaut have tracks named after them; for ‘Gagarin’ three horn players join the band onstage, adding soaring triumphal notes over the slap bass rhythm. By contrast ‘Valentina’ is beautiful and ethereal, with Enya-like vocal sounds. Lest we forget, the room shaking thrum of ‘Fire in the Cockpit’ reminds us of the heroism of these people, and the personal sacrifices that the progress was built upon.
To be honest, laudable though Wakefield council’s intentions are in making use of the Old Market Hall as a venue, it’s not entirely suited to a gig of this scale; the audience space is divided by a central row of pillars which prevent line of sight from some angles, the stage is a little cramped and the acoustics are too echoey. That said, it doesn’t detract from the evening, if anything the slightly ‘let’s make the very best use of what we’ve got’ feel echoes the spirit of that era.
The high point of the performance is ‘Go!’. Starting softly, but with a driving, urgent rhythm as a background to sound bites from Apollo mission pre-landing checks, it builds gradually until, as ‘All systems are go!”, it culminates with a crescendo, in the silence after which we hear the legendary words; “The Eagle has landed.” For the first time, humans had reached the moon.
Having played the whole of the album, there’s still plenty of time to treat the crowd to some highlights from the group’s back catalogue. The punchy ‘Theme from PSB’ and ‘Spitfire’ are particularly well received. There’s also a handful of tracks from their latest album, Every Valley, which highlights the rise and disastrous fall of coal mining in South Wales, something that resonates deeply in South Yorkshire too.
But tonight belongs to the Moon. Seeing Public Service Broadcasting perform Race for Space has gone down as one of my all-time best gig experiences. And I got to the moon too, just before I turned right towards the toilets.
images: Gail Schuster