Black Country, New Road: Live at Bush Hall

There’s a long, storied tradition of alt-rock band names that employ superfluous punctuation (and annoy the music journalists forced to type them out), but in the case of Black Country, New Road, that comma is significant. It effectively elevates an arcane regional reference into a mission statement for a group of musicians that—be it through scandal, aesthetic fatigue, or sudden personnel changes—has taken a scorched-earth approach to the past before setting out for unchartered territory. What is “Black Country, New Road” if not a more poetic way of saying, “Been there, done that”?

For most bands, the release of a new album marks the start of its next chapter, heralding the impending cycle of promotion and touring and audience expansion. But for Black Country, New Road, albums are tombstones marking the end of an era, and an opportunity for reincarnation. Their debut, 2021’s For the first time, was a collection of early singles whose panicked spoken-word narratives and staccato, scabrous guitars could’ve tricked you into thinking Black Country, New Road were another pack of post-punk chancers—that is, if you ignored the avant-jazz orchestration and klezmer delirium burbling underneath. Then, on 2022’s stupendous Ants From Up There, they went from being Britain’s most imposing new indie band to its most inviting, embracing a theatrical maximalism that threads Springsteen with Sufjan. Frontman Isaac Wood switched his default setting from antic to romantic, sashaying through the slowly unfurling, sax-sweetened anthems like a drunken Jarvis Cocker rallying his fellow mis-shapes out of the pubs and into the streets, or a Matt Berninger who spends the whole show dangling from the balcony.

In its tightrope act between fragile and fearless, Ants From Up There was the sort of album where every song felt like a mic drop, each falling higher than the last, culminating in an epicalbum-closing triptych that would cement Black Country, New Road’s place in the UK indie firmament even if they never released another note of music. So what could Wood possibly do for an encore? Quit the band, of course, mere days before the album’s release. On the cusp of a career breakthrough, he chose his mental health over impending stardom, opting for a quiet life working in a cake shop.

But if Black Country, New Road are miles away from their doomy post-punk origins, they still adhere to that genre’s core philosophy: Rip it up and start again. Instead of searching for a new singer, or delegating frontperson responsibilities to one of their own, they decided to share the load, with bassist Tyler Hyde, saxophonist/flutist Lewis Evans, and keyboardist May Kershaw taking turns at the mic. Rather than try to mimic the charismatic intensity Wood brought to their repertoire, they opted to scrap the entire songbook and write all new material for their summer 2022 festival dates. And rather than try to fine-tune these new songs into proper recordings for their next studio album, they decided to make a movie.

Filmed over a three-night stand in London last December, and unveiled on YouTube last monthLive at Bush Hall is hardly the typical concert doc. At Bush Hall, Black Country, New Road ceased to be England’s buzziest indie band and instead turned themselves into the country’s most irreverent dinner-theater act, organizing each evening around a fake play concept, complete with costumes, DIY stage props, and souvenir programs detailing imaginary plot synopses set at a farm, an Italian restaurant, and a high-school dance, respectively. But even if Live at Bush Hall wasn’t intended to be the next official entry in their canon, the accompanying soundtrack album certainly earns its right to be considered as such. Notwithstanding the occasional bit of stage banter that makes no sense without the film (“Happy prom night!”), Live at Bush Hall is as cohesive a statement as any other record in the band’s discography.

Where the glorious peaks on Ants From Up There had to be earned—you don’t get to experience the rapturous chorus of “Snow Globes” without first taking the five-minute trek up the mountain to get there—this iteration of Black Country, New Road go straight for the joy, opening the shows with a celebratory theme-song tribute to themselves, the aptly titled “Up Song.” As Evans squawks out a sax melody that sounds like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” being played at a school recital, the band unleashes a torrent of wild, piano-pounding, old-time rock’n’roll that climaxes with an ecstatic group hug of a chorus: “Look at what we did together!/BC,NR friends forever!” But within that cheeky refrain is a serious, blood-pact reaffirmation of the group’s unshakeable camaraderie. “Up Song” is more than just a readymade curtain-raiser; it’s proof that a band can, within months, lose its most integral member, reallocate musical roles, scramble to write an entirely new setlist (all while violinist Georgia Ellery withstood the strong gravitational pull of her other, equally buzzworthy band, Jockstrap), and come out sounding wholly reenergized.

None of Black Country, New Road’s newly anointed vocalists can match Wood’s natural, scenery-chewing gravitas—nor do they try to. But each singer subtly carves out a distinct personality that helps nudge BC,NR toward both giddy new heights and devastating new depths. Where Wood could invest pop-cultural references with the metaphorical weight of scripture, the messaging and delivery here are more matter-of-fact and heart-on-sleeve. Hyde recounts the push-pull of a toxic relationship on “I Won’t Always Love You,” her deadpan tone transforming the song into a piece of post-rock cabaret, while the stirring, string-quivering “Laughing Song” is as vulnerable and tender as a fresh bruise, with Hyde not only eulogizing a failed relationship but also admitting her own self-sabotaging role in its demise. Evans, conversely, plays the lovestruck fool on “Across the Pond Friend,” a swashbuckling serenade detailing those rare weekend getaways when long-distance relationships become IRL couplings, where even the most mundane activities (“On our last night/We watched a film and had a cry”) feel like minor miracles.

With songs like these, Black Country, New Road creep ever closer to becoming the prog Belle and Sebastian, and even without a Stuart Murdoch-like figure at the center, Evans makes for a highly capable Stevie Jackson, an eager foil who personifies this band’s playful spirit and tough-twee sentimentality. But the tracks helmed by keyboardist May Kershaw have no precedent in this band’s catalog. Her two leads are a study in contrasts: “The Boy” is a fantastical multi-sectional fable about a wounded bird that sounds like Björk singing a Celtic sea shanty over a Steve Reich movement, with frequent shifts in perspective and arrangement—she even calls out the chapter breaks. And then there’s “Turbines/Pigs,” a nine-minute masterstroke of candelabra-lit piano balladry where Kershaw strikes the sweet spot between the gentle melodicism of the Carpenters and the gothic folklore of Kate Bush to paint a portrait of a would-be witch stewing in self-pity: “Don’t waste your pearls on me,” Kershaw sings, on the verge of tears. “I’m only a pig.”

But just as the song is about to fade to black, Kershaw’s piano rallies the group for a hair-raising three-minute crescendo as if casting a spell, reframing the song’s outsider subject as a superhero. The story it tells could very well be the band’s own: Pushed to the brink, their future uncertain, Black Country, New Road magically summoned the strength to survive and thrive, and Live at Bush Hall is their champagne-popping send-off to a tough, turbulent year.

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Black Country, New Road: Live at Bush Hall