Black Country, New Road
Live at Bush Hall
Ninja Tune · February 20 2023
Despite near-constant critical acclaim for British post-punk outfit Black Country, New Road, the future of the seven-piece band became uncertain just days before the release of their 2022 album Ants From Up There. Many worried that without the domineering voice and unforgettable lyrics of Isaac Wood, the group would lose the edge that made them so impactful.
The remaining members were left to pick up the pieces in the only way they knew how – through live shows in which they let their creativity progressively shape the outcome of their music. In turn, Live at Bush Hall is not simply a concert film but an experience for the devoted listener of BC,NR in order to bring them closer to this creative process.
I first became aware of Black Country, New Road through YouTube. In late 2020, a thumbnail featuring a close-up shot of a man shouting down the microphone at some London venue called The Windmill caught my eye. And while their music was strange and teeming with tension, I couldn’t fall in love with the style just yet. Returning to the group after hearing of Wood’s departure, I returned to these old concert videos more frequently than their actual studio releases. While I loved For the First time and Ants From Up There just as much as the next listener, Black Country, New Road’s original concert music was special for its pure raw edge. So when it was announced that the group would be making a return tour as a six-piece in small venues across the UK once again, I was hopeful that the group would return from these sessions victorious. So when a North America tour was announced, I jumped at the opportunity to grab a ticket.
The concert film opens with the construction of the venue and the introduction of the three live shows of audio recordings being three separate plays that the group would be performing on each of the nights. Alongside recorded audio and video showcasing friends and fans of the group explaining what the group means to them, immediately the film closes the distance between the viewer and the band themselves. Traditional heartbeat of the group Lewis Evans is the first to produce any notes in the band’s return to performance, opening with a hope-filled saxophone solo. While there is an uplifting mood to the start of the film, the nervous energy that lies behind the surface becomes very apparent with bassist Tyler Cryde’s opening lines of “Up Song.” It becomes immediately obvious that the group is struggling to remain confident, due to the criticism seen in “Look at what we did together / don’t know how you did it / Have you come out half the woman you were before / Or twice the person you ever dreamed you could be?”
I waited hours in the heat of a late summer afternoon in New York, the sidewalk outside the Bowery Ballroom burning through my shoes, and with each passing minute I became more and more nervous. Had I been deceived? Had the fans and press been too kind in their assessment of their UK tour? Standing dead center in the second row, I was sure to make the show as personable as possible. So when watching the opening of the Live at Bush Hall film, it’s easy to be stuck with that uneasy anticipation all over again. Yet when the band broke the tension, singing “Look at what we did together / B-C-N-R friends forever” in unison, all tension washes away with the cheer of the crowd.
“Up Song” utilizes similar musical themes to an Ants From Up There favorite, “Chaos Space Marine.” Like the predecessor, “Up Song” re-uses the theatrical and sing-a-long nature akin to Queen’s best hits to shake the chains of expectation and doubt. In the film, the certain play you see changes with each song of the set, stringing together each night with near seamless transitions. Pianist May Kershaw takes on the role of lead singer for “The Boy,” providing enchanted vocals alongside a fairy-tale-like story of a robin who has lost the ability to fly and searches for strength. The following track “I Won’t Always Love You” features broken spoken word-style lyrics from Cryde and standard BC,NR style anxiety-filled climax. “Across the Pond Friend” and “The Wrong Trousers” feature singing from saxophonist Lewis Evans, delivering fun for the former and reminiscing over the loss of Isaac Wood in the latter, but are some of the weaker tracks ever performed by BC,NR. “Laughing Song” switches the lead role back to Tyler Cryde and features all of the pure defeat of losing someone who seemingly completed you, and while lyrically interesting, lacks much of a punch to make the track truly great. The film also features an intermission period, similar to that of a theater production, and allows the viewer into the creation of the handmade designs for their live sets, accompanied by jokes and odd bits just as if you were within their friend group and participating with them.
The very best tracks on offer are the final two. “Turbines” features solo piano and singing from Kershaw to begin, accompanied by a shot of the rest of the band members watching on as they do on stage at live shows, with one seat empty. Kershaw’s lyrical performance is seemingly abstract, but ultimately heart-wrenching and evokes feelings of total worthlessness in “Don’t waste your pearls on me / Don’t waste your pearls on me / I’m only a pig / I’m only a pig.” The final instrumental on the track is comparable with the very best of BC,NR, with drum and guitar work from Charlie Wayne and Luke Mark that hit like shotguns to the chest on every note played, especially felt in person. The New York live set closed with “Dancers,” sung by Tyler Cryde. Expressing feelings of high expectations, mountains of criticism, and constant need to perform, the band delivers a plea for understanding accompanied by an emphatic musical closure from all members. The film closes out with “Up Song (Reprise)” which is the opener slowed down, exchanging proud feelings for solemn remembrance, with the film ending on one final melancholy piano solo and a bow from the band.
Throughout much of the film and the musical accompaniment, references are made to Isaac Wood and his irreversible influence on the group. The open seat is at the table featuring the sign “Reserved for Hubert Dalcrosse” is presumably his and is the same name of the writers of every play for each night, demonstrating in the film his instrumental impact. And while the group is leaving him behind in good faith, the group has yet to diverge from their art-rock findings on Ants From Up There – most of what is offered here sounds like an enjoyable b-side. Yet with their original post-punk-heavy sound becoming almost insufferably oversaturated and seemingly impossible to return to, the band may be in need of a stronger turn away from their previous work. And while the band has not announced any plans for a studio recording of this setlist, maybe it is best that Live at Bush Hall remains in the imperfect state that it currently is. Many touches throughout the film helped to create an experience that superseded the regular live performance, adding inventiveness that the music at times lacked. One can only hope that the band will be able to reinvent itself yet again, and all faith should be put in them that the next stylistic change is for the better, whatever it sounds like.