Spare a thought for the musicians who have released their first record without live feedback from the outside world. No amount of word-of-mouth buzz or critical acclaim can replace the red hot adulation of a baying crowd, even for an instant classic album like experimental rock band Black Country, New Road’s recent ‘For the first time’.
Tonight, though, the London group offer an electrifying sense of what we have been missing. In an empty Queen Elizabeth Hall at the capital’s Southbank Centre, the album gets a full run-out, the seven-piece hitting their full stride despite the enforced absence.
They make even more sense as a live band than a studio project; the ease with which they can dance between musical styles and forms, between levels of intensity and tempo, means that they reach their greatest heights when unlimited by the confines of recorded sound. On stage, they behave as one terrifying, seven-brained superorganism. This is evidenced by the moment in ‘Science Fair’ when they step up the pace and begin the build to a head-thrashing, post-psych freakout that climaxes with all of their influences, histories and experience congealing into one towering, monstrous convulsion.
Their dexterity with genre – tonight we get flavours of free jazz, prog, post-rock, no wave and klezmer – is enhanced by the eclecticism of their line-up. Lewis Evans’ saxophone and Georgia Ellery’s violin open up parts of the palate that most guitar bands can’t access, much less make use of. On opener ‘Instrumental’, the muscular energy of the standard rock ingredients is imbued with an unpredictable, faintly menacing edge, while May Kershaw’s synths surf atop the thrum, the siren luring us into the rock.
The dry wit and generational anxiety of Isaac Wood’s lyrics have been a major part of the band’s rapid rise and the slight quiver in his voice keeps you wondering whether he is confessing intimate personal truths here or he is about to corpse with laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. The set’s most jarring moment, though, comes when he does not deliver the “I’m more than adequate” bridge near the end of ‘Sunglasses’, the very moment that many of us fell in love with this band. What is the meaning for this – are Black Country, New Road killing their darlings by excising their most cherished moment? Have they come to resent it? Are they saving this for the return of live crowds? Whatever the reason, it leaves a strange empty space in the show’s centre.
The seats of the Queen Elizabeth Hall are also empty, save for nine very lucky onlookers. At first, one might have assumed them to be crew members or event staff, until they rise to their feet during ‘Track X’, each with a microphone in hand, to provide the song’s backing vocals. A neat, creative use of the weirdness of the environment, it enhances the moment and draws attention to the room itself, which is adorned all night with projected images of faces and close-ups of gazing eyes. It lends a sense of observing and being observed, a strange meta-allusion to this event’s attempt at establishing a connection during a disconnected period in our history.
They end with an incendiary performance of the unreleased live favourite ‘Basketball Shoes’, which sees Luke Mark rocking an 18-string, double-neck guitar. The band take their sweet time building textures around the edges of the song before building to three consecutive climaxes, Wood’s voice replacing what was a quiver with something much stronger. It is a raging finish to a gig that both consolidates Black Country, New Road’s position at the vanguard of contemporary music and offers a spiritual booster as we enter what we hope will be the dying months of having to deal with such a thing as a livestream gig.
Black Country, New Road played