PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING | LIVE REVIEW
Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union, Fri 13 Oct
It’s only right that Public Service Broadcasting should be kicking off their UK tour here in Cardiff. After all, their latest LP, Every Valley, is an ode to the rise and fall of the coal industry in south Wales. That this astonishing record – angry, defiant, poignant and ultimately strangely uplifting – is the work of a trio of self-confessedly “middle-class Londoners” with no connection to either mining or the region makes it even more remarkable.
For that reason, though, it was inevitable that some cynical critics would be quick to accuse Public Service Broadcasting of cultural appropriation. The very suggestion is so preposterous and unjustified as to seem purely malicious. Not only did they conduct extensive research, immersing themselves in time and place through interviewing members of the local communities and poring over documentary evidence, and record the album at the Ebbw Vale Institute, returning there in June to mark its release with two sold-out shows; their approach to songwriting – overlaying instrumental tracks with samples from archival footage – helped to guard against the danger of crass ventriloquism, instead allowing the actual protagonists in the human drama to speak for themselves. The resulting LP reveals a sensitive and serious engagement with its subject matter – an acknowledgement that, for a great many people, its subject still matters.
In the live environment, though, Every Valley does present its creators with a problem. Like most concept albums, it derives much of its power from the narrative arc it traces, with the songs working best in sequence. Consequently, they have to choose whether to simply play the record from start to finish or run the risk of jarring juxtapositions by taking tracks out of context and interspersing them with older material.
When the band – bespectacled and clad in their customary uniform of corduroy and tweed, looking like Oxbridge graduates enjoying a night off from cracking codes at Bletchley Park – take to the stage and open with the Richard Burton-sampling title track and The Pit, the album’s first two songs, it initially seems as though they might have plumped for the first option. But then come Theme From PSB and the “even sillier” The Now Generation from their full-length debut Inform – Educate – Entertain; both are fine tracks in their own right, to be fair, but in this company feel rather like awkwardly intrusive gatecrashers.
The two giant rotating model pit wheels flanking the stage and the pit lamps that light up and descend from the ceiling serve as continual reminders of Public Service Broadcasting’s most recent release, though, and soon we’re back to Every Valley, with People Will Always Need Coal and Progress. Like Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell for the latter, the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield is sadly present in voice only for Turn No More.
However, it’s with They Gave Me A Lamp that the gig really becomes truly magical. “You probably haven’t heard a band thank a library before”, smiles frontman J. Willgoose, Esq, before saluting the support of the South Wales Miners’ Library, without whom the track – about the empowerment of women during the Miners’ Strike – would never have been existed. By its end, I’ve got a lump the size of a rugby ball in my throat, there are tears rolling down cheeks and the applause lasts almost as long as the song itself. All Out follows, an uncharacteristically but appropriately brutal soundtrack to images of violent clashes between police and miners that betrays a hitherto unexpressed love of Mogwai.
This isn’t to say that the huge crowd are uninterested in the older songs – far from it. Both Night Mail and Spitfire mid-set garner a massive response, while Go! has fists punching the air and The Other Side, also taken from Every Valley’s predecessor The Race For Space, creates an electrifying tension in the room. It’s as though we’re hearing mission control lose radio contact with Apollo 8 in real time, and the relief when contact is restored is palpable.
An encore comprising Gagarin (complete with a man in space suit and synchronised dance moves from the brass section) and Everest concludes with the band giving over the stage to all 40 or so members of the Beaufort male choir for a performance of Every Valley’s final track Take Me Home. When they start to shuffle off stage, there’s barely a dry eye in the house, and the audience respond with a spontaneous, stirring rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau that swells to fill the whole room.
It’s an extraordinary end to an extraordinary gig – one that makes a complete mockery of those accusations of appropriation, and one that was an absolute privilege to witness.
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos RAYMOND BANNISTER