Live Review: Black Country, New Road at the Southbank Centre

CAMBRIDGE ensemble Black Country, New Road paved the year’s beginning with their debut album, collecting revitalised versions of beloved live favourites, as well as grand and mercurial opuses not heard yet.

The band’s status as an extraordinary live act is one which their rapid ascent through the post-punk realm thrives upon; whether engaging in freewheeling, absorbing, improvisational jams or their already adored discography (which often share a similar spontaneity), they excel in every area.

Their recent performance at London’s Southbank Centre was as much of a dense and vivid visual spectacle as it was an aural one: the album’s entirety given new life in a gorgeous live setting, whilst newer tracks were also displayed beautifully.

The band opened that performance with “Mark’s Theme”, a mournful slow blaze centring on Lewis Evans’ saxophone – this acted as an incredible prologue to the album’s opener, segueing with panache into contrasting storm of “Instrumental”, even more viscerally burning in its live incarnation.

Black Country’s tension-filled, fractious tone – running through the breadth of their releases – was exacerbated here by the venue’s vastness, in addition to the myriad cinematic and expansive visuals playing over the walls around the band. “Science Fair” is elevated by this array of visuals, its threatening pulse a perfect match for the flickering imagery. Yet also, seeing the sheer anguish guitarist/vocalist Isaac Wood’s face conveys on “Science Fair” – and also “Sunglasses” – was an equally fulfilling live experience, in tandem with the track’s personal narrative.

Black Country, New Road, from left: Tyler Hyde, Lewis Evans, and May Kershaw

The droney guitar intros of “Science Fair” and “Sunglasses” rung out as piercing reverberations in the seemingly cavernous venue, heightening the simmering tension to the brim. Within this live rendition of the acerbic epic, “Sunglasses”, Wood’s vocal approach seemed to have swung even further toward a sung style, contrary to the spoken-word dominated approach of the band’s earlier era. Here the vocals leant into the brilliantly melodramatic tone even more. The atmospheric elements of this performance, echoing across the nearly empty venue, simultaneously invoke the disquiet of current gigging times, but also resonate with a melancholic optimism.

Oppositely the band, a small choir filled the album’s final two tracks with appropriate grace. The choir brushed a doubly mellifluous veneer over the already soothing, cooing, backing vocal-embellished “Track X” and branded the eruption of the climaxing “Opus” with an incredible, bittersweet energy.

The concert was concluded by a fresher set of tracks in “Bread Song” and “Basketball Shoes”: the former was decorated with acoustic guitar, a surprising venture for their usually abrasive post-punk guitar sound, sizzling violin at the fore. “Basketball Shoes” is an unreleased but well-gigged track telling of Charlie XCX’s fascination with Wood’s songwriting, and plastering the venue with a series of visceral crescendos bolstered by the choir, and guitarist Luke Mark unleashing a disorienting torrent on a double-necked twelve-string.

Besides revelling in astonishing musicianship, and an overwhelming desire to return to live music, Black Country, New Road’s latest gig showed their chameleonic shift emerging with immediacy, their established tracks sitting beyond comfortably next to the lesser-heard cuts, while these also felt distinct and firmly part of the band’s next era.

The Southbank Centre also spoke to the band early last month; have a read here.

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