Live at Bush Hall, their first release since singer Isaac Wood left the band, comprises entirely new material
Photo: Holly Whitaker
WARNING: This is YouTube. Keep the remote handy throughout
22 February 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Black Country, New Road (commonly abbreviated to BCNR or BC,NR) are an English rock band formed in Cambridgeshire in 2018, consisting of Tyler Hyde (vocals, bass), Lewis Evans (vocals, flute, saxophone), May Kershaw (vocals, keys), Georgia Ellery (vocals, violin), Charlie Wayne (vocals, drums) and Luke Mark (guitar). The band’s first two albums featured guitarist and lead vocalist Isaac Wood, who left the band in 2022.
The band gained initial attention through debut singles “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses” in 2019, which combined features of experimental rock, post-punk and post-rock, drawing comparisons to bands such as Slint and contemporaries Black Midi. Their debut album For the First Time, released in 2021, received widespread critical acclaim, was nominated for the Mercury Prize and reached No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart.
Four days before the release of their 2022 second album Ants from Up There, Wood left the band, citing mental health struggles. The album received further critical acclaim and commercial success, debuting at No. 3 on the UK Albums Chart. (Wikipedia)
1:21 Up Song
5:08 The Boy
11:31 I Won’t Always Love You
16:03 Across the Pond Friend
19:55 Laughing Song
28:21 The Wrong Trousers
46:56 Up Song (Reprise)
December 15, Bush Hall: Bouncing back after a turbulent year, BC,NR reaffirm their role as one of Britain’s boldest young bands
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.
Black Country, New Road perform at Bush Hall, London (Picture: Holly Whitaker)
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.
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.
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:
‘I Won’t Always Love You’
‘Across the Pond Friend’
‘The Wrong Trousers’
‘Up Song’ (Reprise)
Madison Bloomv. February 20, 2023 Pitchfork
Black Country, New Road have released a new concert film chronicling three shows at London’s Bush Hall last December. The performances were made up of entirely new material, written after frontman and co-founder Isaac Wood left the group early last year.
Each night featured a different visual theme and corresponding stage sets, inspired by school plays, pastoral scenes, and a fictitious, haunted pizza parlor called I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts. The film was directed by Greg Barnes and mixed by John Parish. Check it out below.
The new material is the band’s first since releasing Ants From Up There shortly after Wood’s departure. The eight new songs were written and composed by the remaining members: Tyler Hyde (bass, vocals), May Kershaw (piano, vocals), Jockstrap’s Georgia Ellery (violin, vocals), Lewis Evans (saxophone, vocals), Luke Mark (guitar), and Charlie Wayne (drums).
“We didn’t want to do a studio album,” Kershaw said in a press release. “We wrote the new tracks specifically to perform live, so we thought it might be a nice idea to put out a performance.” Mark added:
We had concerns from live sessions we’ve seen or done in the past. They are very obviously clumped together visually from multiple performances. That can take you out of the performance and make it seem artificial and like it’s not actually live. So we came up with the idea to make the three nights look visually distinct from one another. To scratch the idea of trying to disguise anything. We wanted it to be very honest and let people know that we had three goes at it. This isn’t just us playing the whole thing nonstop.
When Black Country, New Road frontman Isaac Wood unexpectedly departed the band on the brink of their second album’s release in February last year, it left the six remaining members of the group with something of a dilemma. The band had a run of festival shows booked, ostensibly in support of ‘Ants From Up There’, which NME called a “future cult classic” in a five-star review.
But it felt disingenuous to perform the material they’d made with Wood. On the one hand, after three years of critical and commercial acclaim they were riding the kind of momentum most bands could only dream of. On the other, they were facing the kind of upheaval that could easily sink the whole enterprise.
Ultimately, cancelling gigs and taking a break just wasn’t an option, says the band’s bassist Tyler Hyde, who now shares vocal duties in the band with saxophonist Lewis Evans and keys player May Kershaw. “It would have felt like we were quitting music if we’d had stopped,” she tells NME on video chat. “You have to keep momentum.”
To many fans’ surprise, the band took the risky decision to plough ahead with their booked date, but also to leave all of the acclaimed material they’d written with Wood behind them and start completely afresh. To have taken a hiatus and then returned months, or years later, “would only have meant more pressure,” explains Kershaw.
“We’ve known each other for a long time. [Wood’s departure] was gutting at the time, but also it didn’t feel like anything we couldn’t handle as a group of mates.” says Evans. The band remain on good terms with their old frontman, whose departure was entirely amicable, they point out.
“As soon as we got back in the writing room a couple of weeks after we released the second album, it was straight back to being normal again. Our friendships with each other, and with Isaac, have always transcended the band. It’s not as much of a big deal as I think it might have seemed from the outside.”
Black Country, New Road was always going to evolve, they explain. “Everything that’s happening with the band now are all things that were going to happen at some point, even when Isaac was in the band. It’s just been sped up since he left,” says Hyde.
Pulling together an entire festival-ready setlist of new material in a matter of months was not an easy process, however. They drew on pieces the band’s respective members had written alone, each of which was at a different stage of development as they took it to the group to be fleshed out. “It was basically, ‘who’s got a song?’ It was a really mad, quick process of just trying to get enough together for a set,” says Evans.
Whoever wrote the song would generally take lead vocals, each in their own unique style – Evans’ a melancholy drawl, Kershaw’s equal parts dramatic and delicate, and Hyde’s expressive and raw. It all made for performances that, by the band’s own admission, were somewhat disparate.
“The songs weren’t really written in relation to each other. We put it together so quickly that we weren’t thinking about how it’s going to sound, song to song,” Evans says. The festival shows became like work-in-progress gigs. “We were thinking about our momentum as a band, but balancing that out with trying everything out,” he continues. “If we try out a tune for a few gigs and it doesn’t work, we’ll just stop doing it.”
Over time, Black Country, New Road realised that the best way to work with this kind of material was to lean into its disparate nature. Among themselves they began to compare their gigs to a primary school talent show, a different member of the band taking centre stage one after the other to sing their own composition.
“Like, ‘here’s Shaun who’s gonna play the James Bond theme on electric guitar! And after that, Tony’s gonna come up and sing ‘Away In A Manger’,” Evans jokes. It was an idea that they stuck with when they began to plot a special filmed performance with which they could immortalise this strange, emotionally complex yet creatively fruitful period.
A new film, ‘Live At Bush Hall’, premiered online on Monday, and is made up of footage filmed across three shows in west London at the end of last year. Each has its own unique theme, for which the band (under the collective pseudonym Hubert Dalcrosse) penned a brief synopsis for a different fictional theatrical performance.
They are, respectively, ‘When The Whistle Thins’, about a council of Somerset farmers’ quarterly harvest summit, ‘I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts’, about a beloved pizza chef’s encounter with a poltergeist, and ‘The Taming Of The School’, a 1980s prom-themed caper. The film cuts from one performance to another between songs, the completely different visuals for each one reflecting a desire to undercut the way supposedly ‘live’ sessions are often the result of several takes stitched together to appear slicker. “I think it’s good to show that we didn’t want to just do this completely perfect thing,” Evans says.
In keeping with that interest in the aesthetic of school plays – “that kind of lovely randomness that you lose in live performances as you grow up, as Evans puts it – for the backdrops of each gig the band and their friends put together charmingly homemade sets – landscapes painted on cardboard, cotton wool clouds for ‘When The Whistle Thins’ and party balloons for ‘The Taming Of The School’. For ‘I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts’, the crowd were served pizzas as the band played. Each band member dressed in character each time. Friends Ginny Davies and India Hogan designed bespoke show programmes.
The film is made up of both professionally filmed visuals and amateur footage taken on camcorders and phones by some friends in the crowd – inspired by Beastie Boys’ 2005 live film Flick, made up entirely of fans’ cell phone footage. At the beginning of the film the synopses of the shows are read out by eager fans on the night, while an intermission sequence shows the group effort that went into designing the sets. It underlines an aspect of Black Country, New Road that the band don’t often put to the forefront – the community that has sprung up around them.
“We wanted to say thanks to everyone for just sticking through it with us, I guess,” Kershaw says. “Everyone’s reliant on other people to get them somewhere, and we’re very lucky to have the people we do around us.”
Adds Evans: “We usually just play a gig, barely talk, then waddle offstage again, so I guess it might be nice for fans of ours who have been putting up with us blanking them for three years. I mean, some of them probably won’t give a shit, but there will be some people where it’ll mean a lot to them to be included in this video of a band they really like.”
Hyde recalls a heart-warming moment before ‘The Taming Of The School’, looking out from the stage to see a host of family, friends and creative collaborators – their “amazing” director Greg Barnes and their label Ninja Tune’s project manager Mita De among them – frantically chipping in to get the balloons strung up in time. “It really did feel like getting ready for the end of school play, just before all the parents come in. It was very wholesome,” she recalls.
Having emerged from the turbulence of the last 12 months, with ‘Live at Bush Hall’ as the period’s time capsule, Hyde claims that “right now, we’re the most liberated we’ve ever been.” They won’t be drawn on whether their setlist in the film will ever be re-recorded for a studio LP, or whether they’ll just move on entirely. “We’re just gonna let things happen organically for a bit, which is something we’ve never been able to do before.”
Black Country, New Road’s ‘Live at Bush Hall’ is out now