Black Country, New Road’s debut album For The First Time was released last month to widespread critical acclaim, a top ten chart placing and a degree of online dissent from fans unhappy with re-worked versions of their favourite songs (read our review here). Tonight’s show is their first live performance since the release and the Queen Elizabeth Hall provides a suitably grand space for their expansive, experimental sound. Given the multi-layered, genre-spanning scope of their music and their distinctive use of stock imagery in videos and artwork, it was with baited breath that we waited to see how they would tackle the myriad opportunities and restrictions that the live stream format throws up.
The seven players silently take the stage in their civvies, setting up their instruments in the glow of three large projection screens before exhaling a sombre instrumental lament, ‘Mark’s Theme’, which post-show online discussions identified as a tribute to saxophonist Lewis Evans’ uncle who sadly passed away earlier in the year. The house lights drop and the hall is plunged into a moment of silence. Whether the online chatter is correct or not, this unexpected pause so early in proceedings provides a touching moment of reflection.
From the moment that the screens fire back up and the band launch into a set following the tracklisting of the album we are fully immersed in the intricate world of sound that the band construct around themselves. There’s little by way of stagecraft, and only a single sentence is uttered between songs in the hour-long set, which while often a bugbear of mine seems absolutely fitting tonight as we sink with them into the curious sonic landscape, completely absorbed in the evolving textures and dynamic shifts that make up its topography. The room is animated by an alternating selection of stock video footage of eyes and tropical fish, babies and flickering flames that despite their seeming lack of connection somehow combine to elevate the sensual experience without ever distracting from the music, as wandering spotlights illuminate the backs of the heads of the tiny scattering of socially-distanced observers seated in the auditorium.
The throb, clang and release of ‘Science Fair’s opening and the woozy tag-team of sax and violin that punctuate Isaac Wood’s meandering narrative provide a first-half highlight, leading us into the moment for which many had been holding their breath. ‘Sunglasses’ was the track which first brought Black Country, New Road to the attention of many listeners, and the sprawling nine-minute beauty is so cherished by fans that there was an angry online reaction to the re-worked, re-worded version on For The First Time. Would they stick to their guns and play the album version or revert to its predecessor? The answer is… no. Tonight we’re treated instead to a new variation, ‘Sunglasses V3’ if you will, and it’s fabulous – a perfect illustration of a band determined to make their music the way they see fit, and no matter how attached the listener may be to ‘their’ version, it would be an act of self-defeating stubbornness not to allow ourselves to be swept away by it.
As the song reaches its shuddering conclusion, the scattered audience rise to their feet as one, not as would certainly be warranted, to deliver a standing ovation but to provide choral backing to a perfectly pitched ‘Track X’, adding a touch of warmth as the spidery guitar and seasick saxophone of the verse break on a gentle wave of keys and “Oooohs”.
The frantic klezmer knees-up of ‘Opus’ rounds off the album tracks and we’re again plunged into darkness and silence – a brief palate-cleanser before what I suppose counts as an encore in these strange times of online gigs; a brace of non-album tracks, the beautiful, delicate ‘Bread Song’ and an emphatic closing blast in the form of fan favourite ‘Basketball Shoes’ before the lights go down, for real this time.
So did Black Country, New Road reinvent the live streaming gig experience, as we may have hoped at the outset? Not really, nor did they need to – this was as engrossing a performance as I’ve witnessed during the lockdown era, a set of skilfully crafted songs played by a band on top of their game and in no need of extra bells and whistles.
The Southbank Centre’s online Inside Out series of events continues until 6th May. Full listings here.
Visit Black Country, New Road’s official website.
Review by Paul Maps
Photography by Mark Allan