Black Country, New Road live stream review – young, free and singular

The Premises Studios, London; live stream
Hot on the heels of their lauded debut album, this protean young band confound once again, with an enthralling improvised gig of completely new material…

Black Country, New Road are arrayed on two sides of a rehearsal studio, as distanced as a seven-piece in a medium-sized room can be. Drummer Charlie Wayne is side-on to the action, sometimes taking charge. Everyone who’s not using their mouth is masked. There’s no lighting, no smoke machine, no ceremony – just a strange jumble of screens on a laptop, inexplicably showing two static views and one roving camera, superimposed over a very jumpy bit of enlarged phone-cam footage. Even by the standards of Covid entertainment, this is all odd. But Black Country, New Road don’t stop playing for more than 40 minutes, when Wayne winds this ‘e up. By and large, it’s thoroughly engrossing.

The reason this group can get away with such an assured jazz band manoeuvre as an improvised gig is that BC, NR are meandering, free-form and restless. A post-rock band signed to an electronic music label, Ninja Tune, they play hell-for-leather party music, derived from klezmer, but cut with self-conscious Gen-Z indie rock and expansive instrumental passages that feel like the confluence of salt water and sweet. To all the comparisons that they have earned – Slint, the Fall, Albert Ayler and Pere Ubu – this improv gig draws forth another: the Dirty Three, an Australian rock band who feature incandescent violin and jazz drumming.

Most young guitar bands wouldn’t celebrate the release of their debut album by playing a 40-minute improvised gig of brand new material. But then most bands aren’t Black Country, New Road. They get away with it – and it feels like a bargain at £4. The post-rock group have attracted dazzled superlatives since first coming on to the radar in 2018. That debut album, For the First Time, was released just over a week ago, and had stars heaped upon it by reviewers. A more conventional livestreamed gig of the songs from the set is scheduled for early March. Tickets for a summer tour are now on sale.

Perhaps an unconventional band suits unconventional times. Although guitarist and singer Isaac Wood nominally fronts the group, he shares the limelight with sax player Lewis Evans, whose instrument hollers when Wood doesn’t. Fiddler Georgia Ellery is way up in the mix too. In an interview, Lewis and Wood have explained why their klezmer-rock can result in a moshpit. It’s frantic and celebratory – but minor key, adding a hint of something beyond party time – like “crying in the club”, according to Wood.

In the absence of a party, this is an opportunity to see what everyone’s hands are doing – and to hear fresh tracks. If there is a criticism of For the First Time, it’s that the six-track, 40-minute running time contains little new music beyond the songs the band have been playing live for two years. Black Country, New Road have said their second album is coming together; this is a sneak peak at works in progress.

Black Country, New Road’s live stream.
‘A strange jumble of screens on a laptop’: Black Country, New Road’s live stream. Photograph: Black Country, New Road

You can identify three separate movements in this non-stop mix. The first is a cover of MGMT’s Time to Pretend, a jaded daydream of fame’s pitfalls, full of nostalgia for youthful make-believe. BC, NR’s covers often garner comments such as “is this a joke?” on YouTube, and you can see why. Wood’s reedy voice cracks and breaks a few times too many for irony. But the band are more enjoyably ramshackle. Wayne’s spacious drumming cracks open the song, while the sax and fiddle handle the melody.

The band carry on – through sun-dappled prettiness, to another garrulous jazz-rave meltdown, to a closing, super-energetic, stop-start-go-faster finale. Ellery alternates between urgent melodies and keening atmospheres. Only the right hand of pianist May Kershaw is visible, but there seem to be more keys involved than previously – incursions of fairy dust and succour into the band’s stormy weather.

Another song – its title is not revealed – eventually materialises mid-set, foregrounding Wood’s writing. His even tones set the scene. It’s the aftermath of a soiree, when technology has misfired, along with a couple’s relationship.

There are rules, Wood is telling us intently, and the protagonist seems to have broken one. As Ellery bows intently, and Kershaw’s hands zoom up and down piano runs, the band start snapping like bunting in a gale. Only a writer as assured as Wood can make this big reveal sound deep: there are breadcrumbs in the sheets. “This place is not for any man,” he concludes, bereft, “nor particles of bread.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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