Live: Black Country, New Road Headline The Village Underground
4 February 2020
Village Underground in Shoreditch is a venue concealing a fascinating and diverse history, having been active as the performance space it is now for 15 years. Prior to that, it was an empty, derelict warehouse, its role as a storage space for the railways of Victorian London forgotten with the coal-blackened hands of the workers who once occupied it. However, I could not deny the apparent sense that history was about to be made once again on arrival at the back of the queue in Holywell Lane, waiting to become a part of what perhaps is the largest crowd of people that Black Country, New Road has ever played to.
So, one might understand the harrowing sense of defeat that filled me from head to toe as my friends and I were swiftly removed from the queue by the bouncer, having pointed out that 17-year-olds must be each accompanied by a responsible adult to enter Village Underground. Thankfully, we were allowed in on the arrival of a ‘responsible’ friend and some colleagues of his who also happened to be going to see the band that night.
The thought now that I may not have experienced this almighty force of music on that night is a disconcerting one. It would be a crime not to mention the support act, the Mancunian bard Kiran Leonard, who was accompanied on stage only by his left-handed Stratocaster which he played with such precision and intensity that he had the attention of everyone in the room, a sight that you all too rarely experience when support acts take the stage. He introduced each song, explaining their messages with passion and solemnity, playing across genres effortlessly, from blues songs from the 1930s to his own compositions of the modern-day, a recurring theme of grief and severity apparent in his lyrics and his jerky, unpredictable chord progressions.
The band then appeared on stage in almost total darkness, the glint of Lewis Evans’ saxophone and the silhouettes of synth-player May Kershaw and violinist Georgia Ellery the only visible sights on the stage. Bearing in mind the band have only two recorded singles, Athen’s, France and Sunglasses (both released on the almighty Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label), I had little idea of what to expect from the set which was set to run for at least an hour (and did).
The opener could not have been more explosive, a train hitting me in the chest, Charlie Wayne on drums exploding into a fast, angry rhythm with Tyler Hyde providing a single note, repetitive groove on the bass. They were joined then by Kershaw’s haunting synth-line and an accompanying guitar riff, layering up to a beautiful, Eastern-sounding melody from Ellery and Evans (perhaps influenced by Lewis’ childhood jams with klezmer musicians), all the while ‘frontman’ Isaac Wood stood reclusively in the shadows to the side of the stage for the duration of this purely-instrumental behemoth. He then approached the microphone to perform the group’s first single, Athen’s France, which, unexpectedly, perhaps replacing the lack of Isaac’s famous moaning, exposed his enthralling singing voice during various parts of the song, something that I was yet to hear from either of their recordings where he takes a spoken-word approach more reminiscent of Slint’s Brian McMahan.
This, pleasingly, became a recurring theme throughout the set, which continued with more unreleased songs, effortlessly combining a range of genres and styles, from outbursts of free jazz cacophonies to soothing pop melodies, leading up to the colossal two-parted, loosely narrative Sunglasses, the crowd at this point furiously banging heads and singing along with Wood – “I try to free myself from the grip of Shellac nails”.
The band then, for the rest of the set, puts both themselves and everyone else into the room into a hypnotic musical trance, seamlessly weaving together a collection of more unreleased songs to create an almost 30-minute long journey through glorious melodies, grooves and pop culture references, such as the now widely recognisable Wet Sheets, where Isaac recalls an intimate dream about a meeting with Charli XCX. Or the line “references, references, references; have you seen Black Midi?”, nodding to their fellow Speedy Wunderground-signed experimental companions, the frontman/guitarist of whom, Geordie Greep, I had the pleasure to shake hands and share a brief conversation with after the show next to the merch table, before Wood emerged from backstage and the two delved into their own conversation.
Throughout the show, it was impossible to miss the way Evans lead the band as if he were the bandleader of a jazz quintet from the 1950s, throwing his fingers up into the air to count the group into the next stages of their performance. It is also possible that the silent glares Wood and Evans shared throughout the first leg of the performance may have hinted to some tension, yet the constantly maintained, impeccable chemistry as bandmates implies this may just be the vehicle for the creative energy. In fact, the whole collective played seamlessly, as if they had rehearsed the set repeatedly as a single orchestral manoeuvre over and over again (which they likely had).
Aside from the aforementioned lack of groans, Wood similarly manipulated his on-stage delivery by removing the iconic sexual references that litter the recorded singles; lines such as “fuck me like you mean it this time, Isaac” and “she tried to fuck me/I pretend that I’m asleep instead” strikingly absent from the first halves of each song. Wayne sat so far back into the stage that he could only be seen at the very front of the stalls (or by the exceptionally tall); the lead instrumentalists towering over the crowd at the front of the stage (all dressed immaculately, if I may add).
The band suddenly transformed as the lights came on after the come down from the show’s climax, bursting into smiles as throwing up hands in thanks as they were applauded offstage, Hyde pausing to take a picture of the crowd with arms raised, possibly an insight into the significance this relatively large show had for the emerging band. Having approached the front of the stalls in the hope of picking up a setlist, my friend was amazed to find that they had not used one, truly displaying the degrees of dedication and perfectionism with which the band prepared for this run of shows. Leaving the venue with a burning desire to see the band, again and again, one can only hope that we’ll be able to hear this phenomenal band on wax later this year. If you get the chance to see Black Country, New Road in the flesh, do not miss it for the world.