Album: Black Country, New Road – Live at Bush Hall review

Despite being a performance borne out of loss, Live at Bush Hall is as much a celebration of kinship and the all enthralling power of live music

By Jo Higgs

Rarely can a band find itself in a more complicated situation than the one that Black Country, New Road found themselves inhabiting in the wake of the release of 2022’s Ants From Up There. Not only was this new record a drastic switching of style, and one that gained acclaim beyond what the London-based septet could have conceived, but that septet was as of only a few days prior, now a sextet. Isaac Wood, the recognisable quivering voice that haunts the ten tracks of Ants had announced his separation from the band. 

Now, receiving greater attention than BC, NR had ever been privy to (even with the chirpy enthusiasm that surrounded their 2020 debut, For The First Time that promised to make it a cult album even if they never produced another song) the band were without their symbolic leader, dominant voice, and above all, close friend. With a big tour looming and a vociferous commitment to respecting the departure of Wood by refusing to play any of their released material, the group left their fans in the dark as to what their upcoming shows might entail. 

Early whispers from those that attended the first shows in this new epoch of a band entering its (at very least) third era in its relatively short existence were positive and brimming with excitement; shaky phone recordings of the anthemic Up Song quickly began circulating dedicated fan forums, and soon enough each live show was characterised by an emotional sing-along. 

As feels right, it’s Up Song that opens Live at Bush Hall, and every other BC, NR set since Wood’s departure. The pendulating saxophone of Lewis Evans becomes a call-to-arms for everyone to summon what energy they can in anticipation of belting out the now iconic lyrics that are beautiful in their refusal to hide subject matter: ‘Look at what we did together, BC, NR, friends for ever’. As Tyler Hyde lulls an airy pre-chorus over plucky arpeggiating strings and the band builds into an brief but intense musical section, the crowd readies themselves for a sing-along that encapsulates the feverish love that many hold for the group. 

As the set continues, pianist May Kershaw whispers “chapter one”, the first in a series of announced sections of the performance. Moments like this affect a sense of operatics to the affair – as if we’re being primed to witness a linearly-dictated narrative through these recently composed songs, that almost betray any suggestion of new-ness with their evident refinement and quality. The set doesn’t provide us with the scrappily hashed-together collection of half-songs with no sonic or thematic grounding, as one might reasonably expect from a selection of such young musicians facing adversity. Of course, this borders on patronising – and certainly unwise – given how the ability of each of the sextet was made abundantly clear across the two studio albums. 

Without wanting to fixate too much more on the effect of Wood’s separation from Black Country, New Road (as it seems very unfair to focus such a large section of a review on someone who no longer plays in the band), if there was to be a delineable narrative across the nine songs, it is certainly loss, or missing someone, and perhaps most importantly, self-discovery in the face of change. 

Powerfully emblematic of this is the Lewis Evans-led number, Across the Pond Friend. Evans is familiar with carrying enticing melodies within BC, NR songs, though has typically done this on his saxophone – here, he displays impressive vocal abilities. He starts ‘I took a trip away from life all by myself / not my style but I was being someone else / the day arrived a lonely walk as I find my seat upon the plane’ as Georgia Ellery’s hushing violin and the gently clomping drums of Charlie Wayne ensure an exciting instrumental gravitas supports Evans. More than a tincture of raw emotion penetrates the vocal performance, ascertaining a personal weight of the song; dipping into the absurd minutiae of live makes the song ever-more touching: ‘Who’d have thought a square bagel’s where it would start?

A highlight among a crop of songs, all worthy of being noted as highlights, the behemoth near-ten minuteTurbines/Pigs is a slow grower that simultaneously crushes the listener and makes us feel weightless. Kershaw takes the helm again, accompanying herself on keys that work together with her voice to reach for increasing heights of eerie beauty. Towards the finale of the track, a gentle piano arpeggio flickers brightly as the swell around it becomes more thundering, with Luke Mark’s gristling slams of distorted guitar acting as an unsung hero, carrying the terror of the instrumental. 

After a break of seven songs, each bristling with quality, passion and impressive theatricality, Up Song is reprised in a balladic form. As the end creeps up, the vivatic melody now synonymous with the ‘BC, NR, friends forever’ calling of the track softly chimes out of the piano and all is silent.

Live at Bush Hall is stunning, in theory and execution. It possesses the energy and rawness desired from a live album, with the considered order and clarity of sound we so often find live albums are bereft off. It’d be a cliché to propose it as a testimony to live music, or the power of friendship, or the ability inherent in the band, even after Wood’s departure, but instead, a preferable cliché might be suggesting it’s a testimony to something or lots of things, but that each listener will find their own personal revival and reassurance in it. 

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