Public Service Broadcasting open Manchester Science Festival with a full performance of acclaimed 2015 album ‘The Race For Space’.
From the ‘beep beep beep’ of Sputnik to the rush of the moon landing – and in the second half: World War 2, 1950s car crashes and the ascent of Everest, this was the show that had it all.
“How do you think Bieber feels to only be playing the second biggest gig in Manchester tonight?” was the final question put to PSB figurehead J Willgoose Esq by University of Manchester’s Professor Tim O’ Brien during a warm up conversation ahead of the music tonight. Whilst it might have been tongue in cheek, it didn’t feel it to the expectant sell-out crowd in this most beautiful of performance spaces. The people crow-barred into the Albert Hall knew it was likely to be an ‘I was there’ moment.
Through the use of archive audio samples, The Race For Space chronicles the US and Soviet bids to conquer the cosmos through the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. It is a fantastic work that subsumes the listener in the spirit and emotion of the era and this was the first (and possibly last) time that the album would be played live from end to end. As well as an expanded horn section, the band were going to be complemented by a full choir and strings from the Royal Northern College of Music.
And so, The Race For Space unfolded, with the choir in the gallery stage right providing a stunning backdrop to Kennedy’s famous ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech from 1962. It’s hard to pick highlights from this album – they all are, but things really took off with ‘Gagarin’, a ‘70s soul funk homage to Yuri’s ’60s orbits. The ‘Brassy Gents’ horns complemented the scene with some spirited choreographed dancing. It was tremendous fun, but the contrast between the peaks and troughs of space exploration was brought into sharp focus by what followed. ‘Fire In The Cockpit’ recounts the 1967 loss of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in an inferno atop the Apollo 1 rocket on the Launchpad at Cape Canaveral. PSB had never before played this live and it is a challenging listen. The string section gave extra depth to J Willgoose Esq’s E-Bow guitar and through the white noise and static of the accident report, the vast majority of the audience gave it the respect it deserved.
In happier news, ‘The Other Side’ recounted the first manned orbit of the moon and featured the loss of signal when Apollo 8 went around the dark side for the first time. The ‘quiet period’ was preceded by some ‘shhh’s’ directed at the bar dwellers that I’m pleased to say were acted upon. It was beautifully eerie sharing the silence and darkness with 2500 others. When the rocket re-established contact there was a huge cheer in the room. You’d be forgiven for thinking that some people had been unsure of the actual outcome.
In ‘Go!’, the exultant high of the Apollo 11 moon landing was played out. Each Houston flight controller’s shouts of ‘Go’ (to indicate their parts of the mission were, well, ‘go’) were met with fist pumps and coincident yelps from the crowd. This was in sharp contrast to ‘Tomorrow’, the closing piece on the album, which features Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 speech from the lunar surface shortly before leaving for the last time. By 1972 and blighted by the effects of the Vietnam War, the American public had lost interest in their men walking on the moon and were becoming resentful of the money it had cost. In his speech Cernan almost sounds apologetic: “And as I take these last steps from the surface, back home for some time to come but we believe not too long into the future… I believe history will record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow”. It was extremely emotive and poignant stuff.
One of the PSB live trademarks is that they don’t talk to the audience; preferring instead to communicate through computerised speech synthesis. “Right then, did someone say illustrious back catalogue?”, said the terribly British sounding machine to kick off part two. The illustrious back catalogue opened with ‘Theme From PSB’, a track from opening album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, and one that gave J Willgoose Esq the opportunity to unleash the banjo. I’m left feeling there’s not enough banjo playing in modern rock music. ‘Signal 30’ followed, the audio samples being taken from a 1950s US road safety film of the same name that you can still find on You Tube. Don’t watch it whilst eating your dinner, some of it is extremely graphic. Luckily, the video walls controlled from the back by fourth live member Mr B left out the decapitations. Anybody who thinks PSB are a bit too ambient for their tastes should hear Signal 30 – it seriously rocks and Wrigglesworth behind the drums belted them as hard as anybody I’ve seen.
‘If War Should Come’ followed, a comparative live rarity and one that once again flushed out the strings from stage left. The war theme continued with ‘Spitfire’, a firm crowd favourite; the infectious guitar riff of which was being chanted by the throng on the floor. Mr B escaped the consoles for this one and roved about the stage with a Handicam that was then live streamed onto the screens.
The main set closed with ‘Lit Up’, a reworking of Thomas Woodrooffe’s infamous commentary of the 1937 Spithead (Royal Naval) Review, in which he describes the scene a little worse for wear. He was making so little sense that the BBC took him off the live broadcast. “This one’s for anybody who has ever drunk too much rum punch” said the speech machine.
A number of people left before the encore – I can only assume there were trains to catch. It was a shame because they missed a wonderful arrangement of ‘Everest’, which opened with a sublime flugelhorn “It’s not a trumpet!” lead played by third member of the live band, JF Abraham. In turn he was followed by the rest of the Brassy Gents and the choir. They were even joined by a bouncy astronaut at the very end. You might have thought he was better suited to part one, though I suppose Everest is as close to space as you can get.
Public Service Broadcasting’s next live performance is at Islington Assembly Hall, London on 23 November in aid of Bowel Cancer UK. The event is sold out but there may be returns at the IAH Box Office.
Thanks to members of the ‘The Informers’ – Public Service Broadcasting Facebook Group for their help in compiling this review.