Belfast’s Mandela Hall has consistently been something of a mecca for artists, bands and gig-goers in Northern Ireland, so it’s always a delight heading down those stairs into the darkness for a night of live music and good times. Life’s little pleasures, eh? And pleasurable it most certainly would be (sort of), with our eager ears anticipating Public Service Broadcasting and their brand of indie/electronica meets samplers/instrumental sonic space adventures. We arrive sharpish with a few dozen others, making our way down into the Mandela Hall and are pleasantly surprised by a promising turnout so early in the night. It’s not long either until Smoke Fairies, the support act for the evening, take to the stage to a rather muted welcome; undoubtedly a regrettable decision by the crowd given that by the time they’re finished their first song, Smoke Fairies own the hall and everybody in it.
They’re utterly captivating; the duo of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies + band create crescendo-laden, atmospheric indie rock that has more than a dash of the Staley/Cantrell harmonies of yore in the make-up. They’re mining The Doors too, and pulling out riffs that drone and shake, punctuated with proto-psychedelic melodies and nuanced vocal interplay. This reporter, blown away by the stage presence and tight, controlled performance, wishes he could tell you that he’s heard of them before this evening, but assures you he will be hearing a hell of a lot more of them in future. The crowd have clearly changed their minds too and the adulation reaches a healthy rumble as Smoke Fairies, those sonic sirens, take their leave assuredly feeling the love.
After what seems like an hour peppered with walkings on and walkings off and all manner of tinkering, Public Service Broadcasting finally remain in place on the stage and we assume they’re ready to start. They’re not. Then they are, at last. Then they’re not, again. Frustration aside, when the projector starts rolling old PSA advertisements in a montage of retro Americana, we’re confident that the music will begin. Sighs of relief ensue as, true enough, it does, and Public Service Broadcasting begin their performance.
It’s… okay. The sound isn’t great at first and although they’re really giving it their all, it just isn’t hitting the mark. Running through new and old tracks alike (after each song we’re given a computerised message notifying us that “that was an old one, now time for a new one” and vice versa), Public Service Broadcasting look fairly uncomfortable and it’s disappointing that neither of them lean into the microphone and address the full house who have come out on such a grim, Belfast evening to see them. Instead, we’re bombarded with more computerised gems like “Hello Mandela Hall, it’s nice to be here” or “thank you, Belfast, we’re having fun,” all delivered in a monotonous, digital standard-english vernacular that leaves us feeling a bit cold. It’s a tad gimmicky so far, but it’s early on and there’s promise yet, because it’s Public Service Broadcasting and they make exceptionally good music, right?
Right, and thankfully, around the halfway mark of their performance, they seem to warm up some and get into more atmospheric territory, playing through ‘Gagarin’ and ‘Go!’ from their latest album The Race For Space. They really open up as well, savagely tearing through their instruments and mashing laptop buttons with force. It’s quite the turnaround and the crowd are evidently pleased as Public Service Broadcasting up the stakes in terms of energy and participation, delivering wry smiles as telecasters and drums are put through their paces. There’s a real treat unfolding that gets everybody going too – Smoke Fairies return to the stage to perform alongside our main act, providing fluent vocals to an otherwise all found-sound set. It’s ‘Valentina’ and it’s delivered with such conviction that we’re truly ecstatic; an emotion that eluded us a mere twenty minutes ago.
There has been an unsuspected sea-change, and we’re treated to a performance that has really turned around. Public Service Broadcasting have given us choral music, techno, shoegaze, indie and more and have eventually commanded the attention of the audience. This rocky start gives way to a smooth finish and with an album so good, there’s always going to be a live disparity; something to work on though, PSB. Something to work on. Aaron Drain