After eons of motionless marination, the pensive, packed-tighter-than-sardines concertgoers finally received their blessing: a cartoonish projection of a rickety, haphazardly assembled canoe. The initial elated screams quickly faded into a confused murmur before an obnoxious, grotesque rock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ripped through the cavernous Howard Theatre. Six people filed neatly onto the stage to exasperated laughter and revived cheering, sending a message even before the first flurry of saxophone riffs on their lead track, “Up Song”: don’t take us too seriously.
It was a difficult ask, coming from the post-rock, post-Brexit, post-whatever-label-you-deem-fit band Black Country, New Road. A vanguard of London experimental music, Black Country, New Road balances musical improvisation and freedom with whimsical yet deeply stirring penmanship in their diverse work. The group brought their unique instrumentation — ranging from saxophones to violins to banjos — and artistic gravitas to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20 as part of their 2023 North American tour.
Anticipation was high — the band was originally scheduled to perform in early 2022 but canceled their plans after lead singer Isaac Wood abruptly quit the band because of mental health concerns. Black Country, New Road finds itself in a transitional phase, missing the raw, anguished talk-singing so central to its identity and performing a completely new slate of songs out of respect for the former frontman. Bassist Tyler Hyde, keyboardist May Kershaw and saxophonist/flutist Lewis Evans constitute the lead-singer-by-committee system, while drummer Charlie Wayne, violinist Georgia Ellery and guitarist Luke Mark provide backing vocals.
The rapport between the six members shone through from the onset. From chanting “BCNR, friends forever” with the help of an eager audience in “Up Song” to melding adroitly with one another in the unmetered segments of “The Boy,” the band weaved gracefully between adventurous detours and harmonious motifs. Each instrument, too, found its distinctive voice amid a chorus of improvisatory excellence, keeping fans anticipating which morsel of sheer virtuosity they would be rewarded with next.
Between the unconventional impromptus and irresistible chemistry, however, Black Country, New Road embraced a marked departure from the aesthetic of their older work. While intense angst colored debut album “For the First Time,” and their second album “Ants From Up There” followed a musical journey from melancholy to triumph, a gentleness enveloped the setlist for the night. Even in the more energetic, Evans-led songs in the first half of the night such as “24/7 365 British Summer Time” and “Across the Pond Friend,” the band adopted a sunnier disposition. Despite Evans’ vocals falling flatter than his counterparts, crowd engagement remained high throughout the first half, still feeding off the initial excitement of the band’s bombastic entrance.
Yet, it was Hyde who managed to fully captivate the audience, adding a tender yet poignant touch and evoking a more intimate ambiance. In “I Won’t Always Love You,” she adds generous rubato while sorrowfully confiding to listeners the pain brought by her unrequited love, “though we know the time’s not right.” “Nancy Tries to Take the Night,” an unrecorded song, sees Hyde recount the story of a woman desperately grasping for hope while being tormented by the guilt caused by her pregnancy, accompanied by a mournful flamenco guitar and saxophone.
Black Country, New Road is at its best when members lay bare all their vulnerabilities in an operatic fashion, recanting their strongest sentiments through the waxing and waning of their instruments. Standard song structures are relegated to irrelevance — instead, moments of tension and release establish the structure for the band’s progression. Black Country, New Road oscillated between these two progressions, retreating into a simple quietude before erupting into a thick wall of chaotic, yet cohesive, instrumentation.
This approach is most evident in the 15-minute climax in “Turbines/Pigs,” a facetious take on the adage “when pigs fly.” Throughout the song, Kershaw’s fragile vocals guided a gentle ascent of flutes and guitars before her agony spewed forth to thundering drums and fraught, staccato piano octaves in an explosive dispensation.
Pockets of indescribable beauty dotted the rest of the set and flowed into the closing acts of “Dancers” and “Up Song (Reprise),” where all the bizarre compositions, changing time signatures and musical eccentricities coalesced into a wholesome purity. Black Country, New Road washed away its listeners into a mellow stream of melodies that weaved past any last reminders of temporal and physical boundaries and cascaded into a bottomless ocean of passion.
As the audience drifted out of the dreamy lull cast upon them, Hyde sheepishly approached the microphone. “I’m sorry, that’s the end of the show, we don’t have a lot of material,” she announced to the dismay of the jam-packed floor. “We’ll come back with more next time,” she added, and once again, the theater whipped into a roar of approval.
In just 65 minutes and 10 songs, Black Country, New Road left its listeners with an indelible mark of goodness. The group proved that even in times of upheaval, something fundamentally beautiful can still be created with BCNR, friends forever.