Review by Josette Thornhill, photos by Riley Saham
Live at Bush Hall answers the question posed by fans and critics alike: how does a band move on without its frontman? In the case of Black Country, New Road, their answer was to start anew. Their new album, Live at Bush Hall is completely new music written and composed specifically for the Cambridge band’s comeback tour — and as a way to show the world how they’d moved on after vocalist and penman of the band’s songs, Isaac Wood, announced his exit from the group four days before the release of their second, most recent, and most commercially successful album, Ants From Up There. The new live album was recorded at Bush Hall in London and released with an accompanying concert film, on Ninja Tune records in February. On Tuesday, Sept. 29th, an excited group of fans filled the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco to hear it played in all its live glory.
Black Country, New Road is a strikingly young band. Taking the stage in dress shirts, ties and formal wear, they almost resemble the kids from School of Rock, all grown up. Despite their young age, or perhaps because of it, the group hasn’t scraped by without their fair share of tumultuousness.
As a sign of respect for Wood, or maybe to show that BCNR has mutated into something new in his absence. the remaining members played not a single song written in their past iterations as a band on their first headlining tour in North America, which stopped in SF. For fans like me, this was something I was bummed about before going into the show. Ants From Up There had been the record to put the band on my radar, and songs like “Concorde,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” had been on constant repeat for me for at least a year after their release. In fact, Pitchfork named the record one of their 38 best rock albums of 2022, no small feat for such a new band. But halfway through the show, I had largely forgotten about any of their other music.
There can be no doubt about the band’s talent. They captured the audience from the very start, and held their attention through long, often folkloric and heavily instrumental songs.
They’re a big band — nearly Brockhampton levels of membership — with five musicians on the stage at the Regency Ballroom, on the warm night of August 26th. A sticky, sweaty, similarly young crowd filled the floor and most of the balcony, swaying along to opener Daneshevkaya before BCNR took the stage, launching into “Up Song,” a number whose lyrics celebrate the band’s success and unity: “Look at what we’ve done together / BCNR friends forever.”
Since Wood’s departure, several members of the group are splitting time on lead vocals, as well as switching between instruments as they move from number to number.
Charlie Wayne stays on drums, except for a brief interlude on the banjo. Luke Mark plays guitar, Lewis Evans switches between saxophone, flute and vocals on songs like “Across the Pond Friend.” Tyler Hyde plays bass and splits singing duties mostly with pianist May Kershaw, who also pounds out haunting melodies on an electric keyboard — which once, during the SF show she accidentally sets into synth mode, which sends the band into a fit of hysterical laughter. Kershaw sings about half of the band’s new songs, including fan-favorite “Pigs/Turbines,” an almost ten-minute long ballad during which the rest of the band is mostly silent, letting her take up the stage. Violinist Georgia Ellery also plays with Jockstrap, a duo started at a music school in London. In other recent collaborations, BCNR also toured in support of Black Midi, and have been known to interchange band members to construct touring groups.
It’s difficult to pin down the sound of BCNR in any amount of words or within genre conventions. With pounding orchestral instrumentation and emotive vocals, songs can seem like they’re breaching into the territory of musical theater, but the discordant backing band pulls it back into the land of experimental rock. Critics have compared the band to Belle and Sebastian, Björk, Kate Bush, Arcade Fire, and more. In their song “Science Fair,” off of their first album, they call themselves “The world’s greatest Slint cover band.” Even without Wood’s lyrics, the new project retains some essence of the Black Country, New Road music of records (and members) past — a haunting melancholia sandwiched expertly between pop culture references and deeply confessional lyrics.
There’s something incredibly personal about the band — although you’re watching them perform a set which is professionally put together, it’s easy to believe you’ve just stumbled across a group of friends jamming in the orchestra room after class. They’re a jam band of non-traditional instruments, whose songs are long and meandering, often staying in a chorus or an interlude for several iterations, never seeming to lose the crowd in the process. It would seem like BCNR has made it, if not in massive commercial success or in being a household name (yet), than certainly in finding an enthusiastic audience of fans who have stuck with them through transition, and found great joy in their narrow niche of music.