When it rains, it pours. Shortly after seeing Shame, a notification told me I had a shot and getting some tickets to see the much-hyped Black Country, New Road at Islington’s wonderful Assembly Hall. Stereodista and I were on it without hesitation. I had been meaning to write about Black Country, New Road (henceforth BCNR) for quite some time. I had wanted to review their album but, despite multiple listens, words were failing me and I could not fathom why. Having now seen them live, I have realised it’s because this band is original, and that is tremendously exciting.
What was less exciting, however, was the disparity between the social distancing restrictions, which informed us we should turn up at 7:10pm for a shot at entry, and the time the band came on-stage (9:00pm)… teething problems continues to abound as we work out how to have fun again, it would seem.
Opening with no support act, we were first greeted by drummer Charlie Wayne, who gently thanked us for our money and attention before pleading that we don’t record any video of the evening’s performance, as the band were to play new music. A tease! How canny… Thereafter, the show began, and it really was quite something.
Where Shame chose Baker Street, BCNR opted for Total Eclipse of the Heart as they entered the stage, which elicited a call and response from a drunken—but, crucially of course, seated—member of the audience. Amusing though this was, it was also to foreshadow how warmly this band would be received throughout the night.
The troupe—made up of Isaac Wood (vocals, guitar), Tyler Hyde (bass, backing vocals), Lewis Evans (saxophone, flute), Georgia Ellery (violin, sitar), May Kershaw (keyboards, backing vocals), Luke Mark (guitar) and the aforementioned Wayne—emerge on stage in what essentially seem to be school uniforms. It’s honestly not too far off looking at a collection of AC/DC groupies and, at first it’s hard to take seriously, particularly as it is so abundantly clearly an overt decision to look as uncool as possible. Such knowing moves as this (including the fake moustaches that those band members without facial hair were sporting) grate on me, for some reason. Stereodista referred to them as “deliberately difficult”, and I can’t say I disagree with the assessment — even more irritatingly, however, you have to let it slide… because BCNR are really. fucking. good.
The septet kick off with debut album opener Instrumental, granting Evans some time for a ramshackle hunt for a missing saxophone strap. Although hardly a track to write home about, the crowd are very pleased to hear this band and totally forgive some sound engineering blunders that punctuate the opening tracks — Woods’ mic isn’t wired up for his vocal debut amidst the first of several new songs shown off during tonight’s show, which takes BCNR even deeper into their jazz leanings. It’s far from the band’s strongest track, but they’ve asked us not to pass too much judgement as the material is new, so… I’ll respect that and give them a pass.
During Science Fair, the “we are a rag-tag group of musicians” schtick is dialled up to 11 and is comically chaotic—far too knowingly so—during the song’s breakdown that follows Woods’ cry of “it’s black country out there!” as I feel I am definitely being trolled by the band. And I am… Woods is smirking right before Kershaw brings the song back together with that synth riff and the song draws to a thunderous close, which is greeted with huge applause from the crowd.
We’re then back into new music territory and chins are firmly poised atop hands as the crowd collectively adopts a undeniably British “I’m interested in this” pose. Truth be told, though, BCNR’s new music is incredibly promising. When this group drew my attention with the original edit of Sunglasses (notably not performed as part of this tour’s set), it was all too easy to bucket them alongside the other post-punk bands coming out of South London. When they name-checked Black Midi in their own music and started performing co-led sets with them in Brixton, it seemed like that’s exactly what they were: a post-punk band. But in the flesh, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In actual fact, the only words I can find to express what this band is up to is that they are “doing their own thing.” It surprises me to say it—it’s not that they aren’t leaning on genres, or have come up with some entirely new form of music but, in the context of 2021, this band is without doubt charting its own course. It’s not the eschewing of the 3-minute “Spotify-optimised” format for meandering, 8-minute tracks on the record, or the knowingly ultra-normcore clothes that we’ve all seen as means of differentiation a thousand times before, either. I think it might be the fact that this band leans heavily on jazz musicianship—much more heavily than I had previously thought. It was slightly evident in their debut album, For the first time, in the toning down of their production towards something a little softer, but live, with their new material, it becomes much more readily apparent, and it is really… interesting. I jotted down a note during this particular new song that led me down this train of thought, and I still think it may yet hold true in future (time will tell): maybe these guys are going to be like Fleetwood Mac, and in all their knowingly alternative choices, wind up hating each other in five years?
I’m more surprised to have found myself comparing this band to Fleetwood Mac.
I’d only just had this thought when we’re treated to Athens, France, the other “big one.” It is indeed satisfyingly “big” and draws much head bobbing and banging from the adoring crowd, although I’m still painfully aware that this is a thinking person’s band and I have definitely got my thinking face on while I watch them.
The aforementioned face was merited, as we are treated to another new song, and this one genuinely was a treat. Beginning with a gentle piano intro from Kershaw as Evans swaps the saxophone for a flute, the song then transformed into something I can only describe as being like… ELO?! Stereodista felt it was more Polyphonic Spree than ELO, but either way… it’s good, and extremely evocative of something I can’t put my finger on — perhaps Prince’s Alexa de Paris (from 1986’s Parade), but then Woods sings “you’re chicken and broccoli and everything!” and I’ve lost the seriousness I was trying to ascribe to this track… it’s definitely more like ELO, and materially different from BCNR’s extant music on-record, particularly as the whole band erupts into a chant at the song’s climax. Bravo, indeed — this truly was very promising music, and was greeted with an eruption of applause and some genuine (and rare) whooping from Stereodista. It was at this point that I decided BCNR are definitely going to be a very rewarding band to follow over the years to come. I am excited for their new music.
The sensational newbie leads into Track X, which is quite a bit more accessible live and a little less Penguin Café Orchestra (as it is on the album), but I’m distracted at this point—BCNR’s new music points to an exciting evolution of this band, and we’re rewarded with two new tracks for the finale.
With BCNR, each song feels quite gentle at its inception—so gentle in fact that I occasionally feel I’m about to listen to something totally different from that which arrives. This is certainly unique in 2021. Kershaw and Ellery echo beautifully off each other as drums begin to thunder atop an ever growing crescendo of guitar and saxophone stabs. It is genuinely hard not to be carried away by it all.
BCNR’s song construction is very knowingly different. There’s an explicit statement here: “we’re not doing what you’re doing,” but it really does work. BCNR’s music is fresh; it’s not for Spotify, it’s for music fans. For their final song of the set—another new track—Wayne is pulling off his best impression of Animal from Sesame Street on drums, but the music remains melodic and crafted, borrowing from folk as much as it nods to rock and jazz. Despite a cacophany of noise and each band member doing their best to shred their instrument, this is so far from post-punk that my bucketing this group under the genre in previous posts was ignorant and simplistic. BCNR is, as best as I can guess, some form of a revival of what we might have lazily branded “alternative” in the ’90s. It’s music that’s hard to codify, and that makes it very fucking interesting. I’m excited for what’s to come from this band.
It’s black country out there.