Such has been the ride that Black Country, New Road have been on over the last couple of years, it’s amazing they’ve not got whiplash.
It was only last year that their raucous and riotous Mercury-nommed debut ‘For The First Time’ came out to a euphoric response from fans willing to jump into their particular slice of musical chaos pie. Following rapidly in its trail, the more fragile and tender ‘Ants From Up There’ crept into view in February – its emotional impact only heightened by the departure of ‘frontman’ (if that is a thing in their world) Isaac Wood days before its release, due to mental health reasons. What could have been a final full stop for the band has instead turned only into a new chapter, with a batch of new material emerging over the summer to replace the older stuff that the band now say will not be played live again.
Tipping up to Bush Hall on a freezing night in West London then, that summer of festival appearances has turned the hype dial up from a curious ‘what are they gonna do now?’ to a healthy buzz. The tiny stage, decked out as a pastoral scene complete with fluffy little clouds dangling from the ceiling, (each one of the three shows they are playing has a different theme, so tonight we are in farm country, of course), gives off the vibe of being at a school play – helped by the band’s outfits as they emerge. Lewis Evans in particular gives off an air of being able to rustle up a sheepdog or two if he hits the right note on his flute. “Everyone feeling pastoral?” he grins, the only reference to what is happening on stage. It’s all carried off with the sort of ridiculous knowing air of nonsense and humour that cuts through any thought that this band is ‘too serious’.
‘Up Song’ sets the stall out, building from simplicity into a crashing crescendo and back out the other side in a way that swings those Bush Hall chandeliers straight away. It’s like playing to a home crowd, those down the front of the audience seeming to know pretty much every word to songs that not only have not been released but have barely even been played live in the UK much yet, willing the band on through some early sound difficulties. Isaac’s departure has ushered in a new phase of rotating singers, each bringing their own personalities and distinct styles to the front in a way that’s pretty damn captivating to watch. Tyler Hyde brings a fragility and heartbroken air to theatrical tracks like ‘I Won’t Always Love You’ (not a response to the Whitney Houston banger, sadly) and ‘Laughing Song’, her voice almost seeming to break with emotion at times. Lewis croons his way through the Patrick Wolf-y ‘Across The Pond Friend’ and ‘The Wrong Trousers’, full of old-school charm and underplayed confidence. The completely hidden May Kershaw is the (literal) secret weapon though, as the stunning ‘Turbine / Pigs’ begins to take its place as possibly the best thing the band has done yet. Half the group crouch together on the floor to watch her, the track sprawling and spiraling out of a pin-drop silence surrounding her piano solo into a deafening roar of thunderstorm sound and lightning strike energy from drummer Charlie Wayne – it seems to suck the very air out of the room.
Whether it’s the adjusted line-up, or just the natural effect of having different singers step in throughout the show, the whole sense of who and what Black Country, New Road could be seems to have shifted now. Georgia Ellery, fresh from her exploits with Jockstrap, underpins the whole show on strings – casting out threads along with Charlie that the rest of the band can dance and wind around. It’s almost a much quirkier band on stage now than the first two albums reflected as they grow into this new form, the sheer force of personality shining through as the six-piece bounce off each other and continue to feel their way through to whatever world they are going to inhabit next. While the feeling can’t be avoided that it would be ace for them to find some way of incorporating the old anthems into this new world, there’s also a sense that they are already songs from a different place and time now.
In a moment where some fascinating stuff is happening outside and away from the usual scenes, Black Country, New Road look to be moving themselves further and further afield into richer pastures, bringing with them a sense of warmth and community that is sometimes missing from other ‘similar’ acts. Sounding like nobody but themselves – while also not really sounding how we’ve got used to them sounding anyway – is one hell of a balancing act, but the signs suggest they’re about to pull that trick off for a third time. This mad little ride is continuing on nicely.