The QT

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Review: Public Service Broadcasting, Durham Cathedral

The opening concert of Durham Brass Festival 2024 was a memorable sell-out, writes David Whetstone
The stunning backdrop to Public Service Broadcasting’s Durham Brass set. Credit: Gordon Armstrong

What a gig to begin Durham’s annual celebration of brass! The splendour of the cathedral; contrasting musical moments of storm and tranquillity; the end of a momentous week.

“I’ve been asked not to be too political,” said Ross Forbes of the Durham Miners’ Association at the microphone… but there was a massive cheer.

A festival that opened on the day a new Government was sworn in will end alongside Durham Miners’ Gala.

Forbes limited himself to recalling the Bishops of Durham remembered most fondly by miners — Brooke Foss Westcott in the 19th Century and David Jenkins in the 20th.

The nave of Durham Cathedral was packed — eventually.

It had taken a while for the audience to file in and find their allotted bit of pew, or seat next to the pew where the row had been extended. A system that probably looked good on paper became a jolly spectacle for those of us who had arrived early… affable, red-gowned attendants shepherding puzzled folk looking for row C, Z or AA.

But after the mini-panto, the music. 

Paul Smith on stage with PSB at Durham Cathedral. Credit: Gordon Armstrong

The brilliant NASUWT Riverside Band from Chester-le-Street, under celebrated conductor Nicholas Childs, opened up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and went on to perform a set which included an arrangement of Ave Maria and excerpts from Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

Brass in a cathedral’s hard to beat, as the festival organisers will have been well aware.

The band took centre stage again at the end to perform a guaranteed tear-jerker, Gresford, composed by Hebburn-born Robert Saint and given its first public airing at the gala in 1938. 

It was introduced by a man whose X (Twitter) profile describes himself as ‘corduroy-infected knob-twiddler’ but should perhaps say fantastic musician and innovator.

This is the self-styled J. Willgoose Esq. who founded Public Service Broadcasting (PSB — but not to be confused with the Pet Shop Boys) in 2009 and, with the small group around him, has built up a serious following.

There’s an unashamed geekiness about PSB but their blend of oral history and stirring, synth-infused rhythms has proved a winner, lending majesty to sometimes mundane utterances.

In the cathedral, their sound bolstered by the Riverside Band, they performed, for the first time live and straight through, their 2017 album Every Valley, the music spinning from snippets of speech – Welsh miners and their wives reminiscing plus archival material.

The Pathé-style pronouncement that the valleys had coal to last 400 years hung heavy with hindsight as the music started loud and rose to a thunderous crescendo.

Public Service Broadcasting perform Every Valley. Credit: Gordon Armstrong

Other tracks featured rosy recollections of jobs for life and a miner’s wife remembering with pride her contribution to the 1984-5 strike. 

Welsh singer Lisa Jên Brown added her haunting vocals and the North East’s Paul Smith (Maximo Park) stood in for James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers on the rousing Turn No More.

At some point the Felling Male Voice Choir filed on to prove that sometimes the unaccompanied human voice is all that’s required.

But a memorable evening ended with a PSB encore which included The Other Side from earlier album The Race for Space, dedicated by Willgoose to astronaut and Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders who died last month, aged 90. 

The bar thus set high, Durham Brass Festival rolls on until July 13

PSB, meanwhile, has a gig at The Glasshouse in Gateshead coming up on October 21.

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