Writer David Evans / Photographer Joe Marchant
Not far from the actual New Road in the Black Country, Dudley, I’m stood amongst a sold-out, heavily mulleted, Birmingham crowd at The Crossing. We are tightly packed and cheering wildly as the now six-piece band walks out on stage to take their places.
It’s fair to say that Black Country, New Road (BCNR) has been through a lot since losing its frontman and guitarist Isaac Wood when he left the band citing mental health struggles. Being announced just four days before the release date of their sophomore album, Ants from Up There, which was to be followed by a US tour, the news could feasibly have been enough to spell the end for the band.
Wood’s honest and cutting lyrics have never shied away from difficult emotions. To many, they were a defining feature of the BCNR’s sound which landed them a Mercury nomination and an adorning fanbase.
Given his central role, I’ve heard some question whether their new approach of sharing songwriting and singing duties could ever reach the same heights. To me, the newest material made post-Woods is steeped in Isaak’s influence, while taking a new direction allowing other members space to shine.
The question tonight is whether these new songs will resonate with this packed room.
Now assembled on stage, the night kicks off. Lewis Evans plays the descending pattern of saxophone notes marking the start of ‘Up Song’, the crowd is primed and cheering from the off. While his repeated riff builds tension, fists are held high in the air as Tyler Hyde comes in with a driving baseline, unleashing the energy in the room.
Describing their unseen struggles and the band’s ability to support each other through tougher moments, the crowd starts singing back every word. I see a smile creep onto Hyde’s face in a great moment of warmth and support.
Arriving at the song’s central and very wholesome “look at what we did together, BCNR friends forever” refrain, the room chants, many with arms spread high apart like a slightly strange post-punk football crowd. And I have to say I love it.
Moving into their second track, ‘The Boy’, the musical talent of BCNR becomes clear. May Kershaw leads the song, and it’s hard not to notice her casually playing a piano arpeggio with one hand and squeezing chords out of an accordion with the other, all while singing the lengthy fairy-tale-like tune.
I’m slightly transfixed watching, but the crowd is still just as energetic, with their continued singing inevitably leading to more smiles from Kershaw – also not immune to their charm.
The follow-up song, ‘I Won’t Always Love You’, shifts the spotlight back to Hyde as they demo a new arrangement of weaving and intricate nylon guitar parts alongside bandmate Luke Mark. The group onstage is intensely focused on their playing. I love how this new rendition starts delicately before building and working up to a dramatic wall of violin, piano, saxophone, and guitar, pushing the dark chords to their climax.
This song draws in the biggest applause so far and shouts increase. While there’s no question that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously, I’m rolling my eyes when some white boys heckles: “Brrap brrap.”
I get the impression BCNR aren’t strangers to this aspect of their fanbase. When a “Rock on” shout is mistakenly heard as “Fuck you” by Evans, he smiles back, “Fuck you?” and hushes the over-excited crowd with his hands.
Stepping up to the mic for his moment, we are led into ‘Across the Pond Friend’ – a personal favourite – featuring its reminiscing chorus about a holiday romance: “In my dream you came running to me, and then fall back into my arms, wake up, let’s eat.”
Again, quite endearingly chanted back by the audience.
Now midway through the set, the band begins to unveil a number of new, unreleased tracks. Evans stays on vocals for another upbeat song in a similar style to the last before the spotlight shifts to Georgia Ellery (also of Jockstrap fame).
Swapping out her violin for a mandolin, Ellery plays out moody chords and delivers some incredible vocals, which until now have been criminally unused by Black Country, New Road. It’s great to see this passing of the mic, and just after Ellery’s rendition we are subjected to another depressingly multi-talented musician.
Drummer Charlie Wayne picks up a Banjo for the final unreleased song. It’s a bit of a surprise, but the track really works, especially when he jumps back to his kit mid-song to pick up the energy.
Returning to the released material and entering the closing tracks of the Bush Hall live album, we move into some more emotional territory.
The band plays fan favourite and touching tribute to Woods, ‘The Wrong Trousers’, recollecting the hurt and the distance between them before taking comfort that they “made something to be proud of.” Having been requested throughout the set, it’s met with a massive reaction from the crowd, and there are a few glassy eyes on stage.
Clearly, this means a lot to Black Country, New Road.
Next, the band drops emotional bombs with ‘Dancers’ and ‘Turbines/Pigs’. These are my highlights of the night and feel like a real apex of the set. Both are standout tracks from the album. With the crowd now firmly gripped into silence, I notice a distinct lack of heckling in the quieter moments and plenty of heavy breathing around me.
When we finally pull into the closing version of ‘Up Song’ it feels like a resolution; emotional comfort for what’s been shared. The slowed-down version of the opening track crawls to a quiet end, and there’s absolute silence before applause breaks out.
Amidst the cheers, Hyde, Kershaw, Evans, Mark, Ellery, and Wayne all take to the front of the stage for a bow dressed like a hodge-podge range of supply teachers. There’s no need for an encore. I’m left blown away. Here in Birmingham, the band really has wrestled with the past and made something to be proud of.
Black Country, New Road Live @ The Crossing 12.5.23 / Joe Marchant
For more on Black Country, New Road visit www.blackcountrynewroad.com
For more gigs and events at The Crossing, visit www.thecrossingdigbeth.co.uk
For more from This Is Tmrw, visit www.thisistmrw.co.uk