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The World's First Band: Black Country, New Road Live At Haldern Pop 2020
Richard Foster , August 17th, 2020 08:25

What happens when you're the band tipped for very big things just as everything grinds to a halt? That's when things really start to get interesting says Richard Foster

It’s All About Bus Stops

It’s not been an easy time for anyone in the live sector of the music industry. But Haldern Pop 2020 did happen, in a way that just magnifies its reputation for being a festival like few others. Haldern has always been an event that - despite all appearances to the contrary - manages to be much wyrder than its line up. This is down, I think, to the emphasis placed on building personal friendships at the expense of chasing traditional ideas of music industry success. It’s proved to be a saving quality in 2020.

Haldern Pop supremo, Stefan Reichmann recently documented his thoughts of the local lockdown - and the music industry in general - in a plush booklet given to the local Rotary Club. Many of his thoughts were accompanied by pictures of bus stops in the area. I questioned him about this. “Villages are always places where you are always going somewhere. That’s the key.” This proved itself to be true in a typically Haldern way in these strange, static times.

Rather than seven thousand people turning up in this unassuming spot in the Niederrhein, Haldern went to Dingle, Co. Kerry and back, via a live link up. And the rest of the world could watch with each set of villagers in their respective pubs, courtesy of a certain internet platform.

A testament to the friendship-making aspect of Haldern was the cosmopolitan nature of the artists who contributed. Dingle boasted sparkling and heartfelt sets from Lisa Hannigan and Efterklang’s Peter Broderick and a virtuoso gig from the incredible concertina player Cormac Begley. We got some stirring words from the Irish Ambassador to Germany, too. Representing Haldern, all tested and corona-free, was the s t a r g a z e orchestra led by André de Ridder. This 14 piece “alt-orchestra”, known for its daring and impish collaborations, would play Beethoven’s First and hammer out creative common ground with Swedish pop maverick Loney Dear, Ireland’s All the Luck in the World and the UK’s much vaunted Black Country, New Road. To top it all, your correspondent found himself acting out the tired and emotional role of compère.

For this brave new world of live streams, however fleeting it is, we should take into account the considerable human effort that creates the digital artifice. The live music business is on its back, but Haldern 2020 was testament to how hard the (skeleton) production, front of house, recording, technical and catering staff all worked. They deserve their due for pulling everyone through multiple rehearsals, soundchecks, recordings and link ups with broadcasts. The collective power of the human spirit to channel and display digital’s potential in new wyrd ways was summed up by Black Country, New Road; who “all sat outside the church where the performance was taking place and watched on our phones. Being able to hear the music, see the comments coming in on the screen of people watching and then to see the village going on as normal was surreal. When I say the village going on as normal I mean that an old woman walked past with a Zimmer frame.”

Multiple Matchmakers - s t a r g a z e

Posy Simmonds is a great cartoonist. One of my favourite characters of hers is mustachioed hippy sociologist George Weber, who uses phrases like “social glue”. That phrase always comes up when I think of the collaborations made by André de Ridder and s t a r g a z e. They are often a key factor of Haldern. It would be wrong to call them the festival’s house orchestra as they’ve built an incredible body of work over the years, what with Bowie tributes at the RAH and the like. But they set the tone here: befriending artists and effortlessly finding new approaches; broadening range and incorporating classical elements that tease beautiful, unseen undercurrents into the open. These seemingly obvious musical equations are often difficult: hybrids of music styles can’t half sound dull and worthy. But s t a r g a z e can be impish and silly, playful as people and musicians. And that approach often rubs off on their collaborators.

The two shows by popsters All the Luck in the World were given another dimension with the orchestra’s contribution; the Irish trio’s gentle rolling, “come-hither” pop sat like a skiff idling and bobbing off a sunny coast, courtesy of the swells and eddies created by the strings. Their show in the church especially was a belter, the trio’s soulful, quiet delivery and the rich accompaniments working brilliantly in a cavernous setting.

Then there was a sensational gig in the studio where Loney Dear’s romantic confessions were pushed out into the light, the simple chord changes and beautiful confessional melodies deftly reinforced and somehow imbued with an elegiac quality and a simple romantic truth. The sort of heartstopping pop moments you’d recognise from Pet Sounds or a Low record. And the perfect, tear-inducing soundtrack to a few minutes spent looking out over a field that would normally be filled with thousands of Germans drinking, eating, making new Germans, or burning things. You really must track both gigs down.

The orchestra’s take on Beethoven’s First (brilliantly premiered in the church to kick the festival off) took in more of their essential pop psychology. Idling in the garden behind the Pop Bar André de Ridder told me that they consider him the first modern composer. License as they see it - just like all those late ‘60s German bands - to reinvent his work in a new setting. Later we talked of how Black Country, New Road fitted in. As ever with Haldern the collaboration story started somewhere else, with someone else . “Last year we were overwhelmed by the Black Midi gig in Haldern, and, frankly, the fact that they even existed, that this kind of challenging, but endlessly enjoyable, fascinating, groovy and explorative music would find its audience so quickly and that it’s NOT, as - do we call them rock critics? would have it - some pretentious pile of b.s."

Away from the pre-prepared scripts of the UK music industry, out on the club and festival circuit, Europe still allows space for other perspectives. Especially in a village with so many bus stops, like Haldern.

Back to André. “So BC, NR brought their own brand of collectivism and eclecticism, in spite of everything, to Haldern. We immediately bonded, living a similar collective spirit. To me, clearly they just make the music they want to do, that happens to be an amalgam of the personalities in the band, not caring about anything or anyone else.”

Black Country, New Road - “The land of club soda unbridled”

Despite them instructing me to introduce them as “the world’s first band”, I think Black Country, New Road should aim higher, and call themselves after a mythical place, “The land of club soda unbridled”. As ever, such falutin’ talk has a prosaic origin. Guitarist Luke Mark, bemused by the fact all the bottled water sold in the area was mit sprudel, but not ohne kohlensäure, quoted a line from The Silver Jews’ ‘Tennessee’: “We’re off to the land of club soda unbridled”.

Forget the added gas, the unbridled bit is now what counts. The three days in Haldern became a creative and spiritual playground for Black Country, New Road. Great band yes, intriguing and engaging personalities yes, definitely. The divs and bores should rightly fear them. But they are also a bunch of seven young people who got the chance to briefly escape from the claws of a demented Albion; seizing the moment by cycling round and round a foreign village, enjoying being bemused by local shopping customs, in awe of the fact Patti Smith swam in the lake, dancing wildly to ABBA and belting out a set of standards on an old Joanna in Haldern’s Pop Bar. And, eventually, succumbing to Haldern’s wild spirit through stroking chickens in a farm at 3am. They are a proper laugh, with their tales of “Cambridge bands”, marriage, Australian beer wars and Shaolin football. And regardless of how the world has come to see them, regardless of whether their past trajectory now means anything anymore in financial or industry terms, it’s great to see talented young bands making mind-blowing music and having fun.

And that fun made the work all the more worthwhile. Given this year’s edition wasn’t a traditional festival, the band had to adapt to a more rigorous schedule of rehearsals in the old youth club, a run-through in the church and the live gig, followed by two sessions in the Haldern studios. Back to André de Ridder for the inside track.

“In terms of what we would bring to the table they were completely open and didn't want to preempt or manage anything in advance. So we prepared ‘Athens, France’ on our own terms, as s t a r g a z e before they arrived in Haldern - extending and augmenting some parts, and creating a moment of timelessness in the middle like an 'island' where the band would be able to join in as well. Then they arrived, we met in a large space in the local youth club and played through it without much ado and things just fell into place. They very easily invited us in.”

The church gig kicked off with the band slowly burning through ‘Sunglasses’; the s t a r g a z e musicians collectively nodding along behind their protective screens. To begin with it’s worth saying the vocals were much more dramatic than expected; Isaac Wood trying out a preacher man cod-croon that dovetailed with the dreamy Walter Mittyisms of the lyrics. By the “Scott Walker" line, Wood could easily pass for the smooth-talking but frazzled Walker of ‘Time Operator’, a man old beyond his years, warning of the impending storm about to engulf the music. With precious little pause between tracks it was time to test all the hard work of the day on their “other” song. But this was ‘Athens, France’ as you couldn’t imagine. As s t a r g a z e’s brass and wind sections added a spooky, sleazy patina to the counter melody, you could think you were digging a Barry Gray score gone down a dark alley. This coat of dark sleaze was accentuated with the drop to the (instrumental) “island” André de Ridder had previously talked about - the music became otherworldly. If anything this section could have been cut from a Frank Comstock or a Hector Zazou album. And it was an outstandingly good collaboration; the track’s luxurious pacing generous enough to successfully incorporate over 20 people gnawing at its fat.

The more I see them the more I think it’s meaningless to describe what kind of music Black Country, New Road make. A list could be compiled (and yes, sorry, I can’t help myself, here are some names I would like to add to the pile, namely Dexys and Henry Cow, or BSP’s more outré moments. Or imagine if the Doctors of Madness were actually really brilliant). But for me, having been lucky enough to see them work and socialise at close quarters, I agree with André de Ridder; the music they make seems to be a reflection of the conversations they have. And, as a large, shifting organisation of talents and creative attitudes they can adapt to most situations and sidestep any bear traps.

But the nub of it is they just sound really really good; a band who know their chops and don’t feel the need to constantly seek attention. Which makes them irresistible. This was seen with the two gigs the next evening in the studios (one for a public stream and the second as a thank you/ free studio time workout). The first show boasted reliably corking takes on ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’, plus their standard cover, a happy, relaxed and loose investigation of Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So’ (which got the temporary chop in streaming land thanks to the legal Blue Meanies). Again there was this impishness on display, what with the vocal takes (husky, slightly giggly declamations, sometimes in a “cracked actor” howl) and the body language revealing a band revelling in pushing each other on. This collective-competitive aspect was on show in the beautiful instrumental jam that clocked in around just under 15 minutes; a track which seemed to draw on BSP’s ‘Lately’ melody, but then became what could be described as a delicate soliloquy with all sorts of sonic accents as a garnish; pastoral chamber music, jazz, and a splash of funk. The sort of thing you’d imagine the early (Daevid Allen) Soft Machine trading in. But again, this was music clearly marked by the band’s inner creative conversations, not external influence.

And, oh yeah, we got two new tracks played for us. These two numbers were beyond immense, sonic barrage balloons that floated off to a magical land somewhere south of Syd Barrett’s fringe and reflected the dazzle of many sharp-toothed imaginings. Future plagiarists with notebooks can now note them as (and I quote verbatim): “1 that will be on the album and one that might be on the album.”

Despite all appearances to the contrary, the collapse of all the structures that got them to within spitting distance of “making it” could now be the making of the likes of Black Country, New Road. Normally you would think, “What now”? But as a band they - and a few others - maybe embody a never-ending Stunde Null, a creative neverland born of these times, one free of other peoples’ considerations. Considerations that were unthinkingly propped up by structures that have momentarily been removed. To carry on the metaphor, Black Country, New Road stands on the weeded bombsite of the music industry and they play on its rubble. As said before one of the lads, Luke, Isaac, Charlie, Lewis - I forget which - insisted I introduced them as the “world’s first band”. Fine; in a way they are, in that they represent no first or last at this particular moment. But I hope they’re one of the collective presages of new languages and modes of communication and behaviours, ones that need to be adopted in large parts of the music industry. How good and fitting it happened at Haldern.