Across a New Pond: Black Country, New Road @ The Concert Hall

For the first time (pun intended), the titular Black Country, New Road have set their feet on Toronto soil. Contrary to popular belief, after the departure of lead singer/songwriter Isaac Wood, they seem like a tighter band than ever before. By not being able to perform the critically acclaimed material from their first two albums, the group had been at work crafting exhilarating new material for their rabid audience. With that purpose in mind, the band released said material into the world with their grandiose concert album Live at Bush Hall, giving these songs its home while containing the energy that bursts through while performing them in front of an audience.

Right before the show begins, the excitement and anticipation for the evening is palpable. Almost immediately after the tickets went on sale did the show reach its coveted ‘sold out’ status. BC,NR’s dedicated following becomes pronounced as scores of fans line up outside of the venue hours before doors open (myself included!). It would be disingenuous to hold the excitement just for BC,NR, however. Due to high demand, the show was moved from its original venue, beloved east end spot The Opera House, to the newly renovated Concert Hall. A skip away from Yonge and Bloor station, the refurbished space adjoined with the Masonic Temple, previously held exclusively private events. With BC,NR’s first stint in Toronto, the facility seems to be opening up to more public gigs. It feels nice to be a part of something new and fresh, especially in Toronto; the wooden floors aren’t scuffed up (yet), the area looks pristine and intact. Instead of feeling intimidating to step in, it’s almost like a warm invitation into something familiar. However, possibly the most troubling aspect of the space is the leveling of the stage. With it being almost the same height as the attendees, it becomes almost impossible at times to see anything if you’re further back, especially when half of the crowd seem to be giants in disguise. But hey, for once we have a venue in Toronto not owned by Ticketmaster, so even these small victories shall be taken.

Indie rock group Danashevskaya warm up the evening with their delicate tunes. The project of Anna Beckerman, the group brings a mellow introduction for the evening. With lush indie rock sounds steeped in folklore and a sweet romantic melancholy. The tone feels fitting paired with BC,NR; a fitting blend of sounds as BC,NR member Lewis Evans had previously contributed on Beckerman’s track “Somewhere in the Middle”. Clearly it’s a fitting combo for this tour, and a bright introduction to the tender world of Danashevskaya.

Anna Beckerman of Danashevskaya (photo: Anissa Azhar)

As a foreign band BC,NR introduces themselves in the most ‘Toronto’ way they know how: playing Drake as their entrance music. A Drake reference seems at this point a necessity for any artist touring in Toronto nowadays, but hey you can’t knock them for trying. If anything, it helps hammer in a sense of camaraderie among the crowd. A group of strangers with a tangential love for one band now all screaming together ‘God’s Plan’. An additional sense of magic as the band goes into the first song of the evening with “Up Song” and the crowd cheers on with bassist Tyler Hyde’s anthemic refrain “Look at what we did together! BC,NR! Friends Forever!” A joyous moment that simultaneously encompasses an overcoming of the band’s greatest hardships and its supportive, tight-knit community.

Setlist wise, the evening was filled with what was expected; an almost complete playthrough of Live at Bush Hall with the exception of two unreleased tracks. The first, “24/7 365 British Summer Time”, is a quaint and lush arrangement with saxophonist Lewis Evans taking the lead in vocals. A reminder of the band’s new collective and collaborative energy while highlighting Evans’ vocal chops and the delicate balance he maintains between hard edge and earnestness. 

Evans' also uses this to segue into introducing the rest of the band: bassist Tyler Hyde, pianist May Kershaw, guitarist Luke Mark and drummer Charlie Wayne. The only absence being violinist Georgia Ellery, a member of the infectious EDM duo Jockstrap, being substituted with touring musician Nina Lim. Ellery or no Ellery, the band is still able to carry her weight and Nina does a commendable job working with the songs at her disposal.

Black Country, New Road (photo: Anissa Azhar)

Their strength in their instruments also comes with a level of versatility. The second unreleased track for the evening, “Nancy Tries to Take the Night”, returns to Tyler for vocal duties. Once again a quaint, yet beautifully majestic track, tinged with memorable banjo plucking. A continued expression of the melancholic and optimistic tone this new iteration of the band is able to express so succinctly. 

These quaint moments however don’t express the breadth of their performance. Live at Bush Hall feels like a theatrical epic, and their playing captured that soaring nature. Whether it be the scale of the band itself, a whopping six-piece arrangement that sprawls the stage, the sheer length of their tracks, some of which are over 10 minutes in length; there’s also the inherent theatrics in their performance. The second song on the setlist, “The Boy” reflects this through a story divided into four distinctly marked chapters. The folklore aspect, coupled with the lighting on stage, feels more reminiscent of a small scale musical production than anything. However, the expansive sound makes it feel so much more potent than just that. There’s a part of the experience of hearing them live that makes it feel so grandiose and orchestral while simultaneously being so intimate.

However, what seals the deal on the BC,NR experience is not just technical prowess, but something just as profound: community. A call of renewed strength and the cumulative power of everyone’s individual work creates this seamless, dynamic performance. The optimistic calls of friendship and hope in thIs collection of tracks call forth a similarly prosperous future for the sextet. The band’s performance is living proof of the collaborative power of musicians dedicated to their craft and the ironclad bond of a group that simply finds joy in making music together. 

Nearing the conclusion of the show, this appeal becomes crystalized with their performance of ‘Turbine”. Half a subdued ballad primarily focused on keys and violin, the other a grand sweeping epic of a song that serves as the highlight of Bush Hall. Seeing the passion as each member puts their hearts on their sleeves to create a memorable performance serves as a stark reminder of their function as a collective. It’s a soaring display of artistry and craft and a performance of a lifetime from May on vocals. An ongoing thread throughout the night was the band’s wondrous ability to bring their all when faced with the mic. Unfortunately, the song had to be restarted twice due to audience members fainting, but the venue, band, and surrounding fans did a great job handling the situation and prioritizing audience safety. As Tyler reminded us throughout the night, it is important that we need not only take care of ourselves but those around us. 

May Kershaw of Black Country, New Road (photo: Andrew Yoo)

The night drew to a close, ending how it started: by playing a Drake song. Some might have felt slightly underwhelmed by the set, clocking in at only a little over an hour of runtime; however, it’s also important to recognize this as a new beginning. This is not the last hurrah, but rather a birth of a dazzlingly bright future. Black Country New Road have proven the power they have to persevere through rough patches and still come out cohesive and enchanting. There may be uncertainty ahead, but I for one, am excited to see what else is in store.