a new and defiantly forward-thinking phase

The reintroduction of Black Country, New Road begins tonight (November 15) with the first of two shows taking place inside the intimate grandeur of west London’s historic Bush Hall. The six-piece are a completely different proposition now than they were at the beginning of the year: in January, frontman Isaac Wood announced his amicable – albeit unexpected – departure from the band just four days before the release of their second album ‘Ants From Up There’, citing struggles with his mental wellbeing. The rest of the band voiced their support for Wood’s decision, but ultimately abandoned their plans to tour the album and decided to essentially start from scratch.

Tonight’s setlist consists entirely of new material, which puts BC,NR in an unusual position: unable to perform any of the music that got them to this point, one of the UK’s most acclaimed bands of their generation find themselves once again with everything to prove. They’ve already “road-tested” some of their new music with the occasional low-key show or support slots with their old friends Black Midi, but tonight feels like the formal launch of Black Country, New Road 2.0. Not only that, but the show is also being professionally filmed: the slamming of a clapperboard just before the gig begins feels especially poignant, and prompts an enormous, rowdy cheer from those inside Bush Hall.

Given the circumstances, first impressions are vital – and the show’s opening notably feels like a deliberate attempt to skewer any sense of grandeur. BC, NR arrive on stage to Edvard Grieg’s 1875 classical composition ‘Morning Mood’ dressed in appropriately rustic outfits: violinist and Jockstrap member Georgia Ellery is dressed in denim dungarees and a wide-brimmed farmer’s straw hat, while pianist May Kershaw dons a blue gingham dress as a country gent’s flat cap sits on top of saxophonist Lewis Evans’ head. “Everyone feeling pastoral?” he asks the crowd between songs later on in the performance.

Black Country, New Road perform at Bush Hall, London (Picture: Holly Whitaker)

Behind them is a crudely painted backdrop depicting rolling hills and fluffy clouds, while a handout that’s given to everyone in attendance beforehand outlines a loose concept for tonight’s proceedings: they are acting out When The Whistle Thins, a play written by the fictional ‘Hubert Dalcrose’ about a council of farmers gathering for their quarterly harvest. Each bandmember is assigned a character: guitarist Luke Mark is Sheep #2, drummer Charlie Wayne is ‘Weggum’, and bassist Tyler Hyde is ‘Richard Dawson’ (music by the much-loved experimental musician of the same name is played over the PA before they take the stage).

Sadly, it’s not a concept the band really stick to – if there is a story to When The Whistle Thins, it’s not to be found in their new lyrics. The only time it’s even addressed during the show is when Wayne tells the crowd during a prolonged period of technical adjustments early on that “it’s all part of the play”. Nevertheless, it sets a whimsical am-dram tone that smartly undercuts the weight of expectation.

The theme can, however, be traced to the newfound sense of earthiness in their songs. ‘The Boy’ opens with a sequence of abstracted folk violin, out of which Evans’ flute rises delicately but directly like a lark ascending. They ham up the theatrical side of tonight’s concept, too. BC,NR have always had a tendency for big, emotional crescendos, but ‘Laughing Song’ in particular sees them reach newfound heights of melodrama as saxophones squall over thunderous clashes of drums. ‘Turbines/Pigs’ is unlike anything they’ve done before, beginning with Kershaw alone on a grand piano before she is gradually joined by the rest of the band one instrument at a time until they reach an enormous, emotional sweep.

Kershaw, Evans and Hyde trade vocal duties from song to song, each bringing a different quality to the mic. Kershaw’s voice is plaintive, sparse and soulful, while Evans – suffering, he admits, with a cold – is an edgier presence. Hyde, meanwhile, takes on around half the material and is magnetic, possessing a similar emotional range to Wood but with an entirely different stage presence. On ‘I Won’t Always Love You’, which opens with Hyde’s vocals being tightly matched with a complex flute and guitar line, she conducts her bandmates with a hand raised so they keep in perfect time.

Black Country, New RoadBlack Country, New Road perform at Bush Hall, London (Picture: Holly Whitaker)

The upheaval the group has faced this year is not mentioned explicitly, although you can read what you will into the moving refrain of spikey opener ‘Up Song’ – which sees all six members chanting in unison: “Look at what we did together / BC, NR, friends forever!” – or Evans’ “we made something to be proud of” lyric in ‘The Wrong Trousers’. It is admirable that for all the difficulties it must have brought them, the band have embraced change as a necessity. Dividing vocal duties has robbed them of the intensely personal introspective through line that made Wood’s tenure as a frontman so interesting, but in its place they have found a sense of refinement and increased scope that their old sound couldn’t have accommodated.

It’s not like the band have entirely returned to the drawing board, though, as the complex structures of their new songs clearly build on top of what they’ve done before. If anything, this reintroduction to Black Country, New Road only confirms what we already knew: whatever the circumstances, this band will defiantly remain forward-facing. The fact that they’ll play here again the following evening with a whole new concept (apparently based around a haunted pizza restaurant) really says it all.

Black Country, New Road played:

‘Up Song’
‘The Boy’
‘I Won’t Always Love You’
‘Across the Pond Friend’
‘Laughing Song’
‘The Wrong Trousers’
‘Up Song’ (Reprise)


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