The Unthanks are blessed with many great things. For starters, in sisters Rachel and Becky they have two uniquely pure voices which converge naturally like mountain streams forming a teaming river of gorgeousness.
Collectively they possess a strong sense of the history, social and otherwise, of the north-east of England and beyond which is authentically reflected throughout their material.
They have a multi-talented musical arranger/pianist/husband (to Rachel) in Adrian McNally, and fine supporting players in violinist and third singer Niopha Keegan and guitarist and bassist Chris Price.
Add to that the ability to draw upon five further highly accomplished musicians to make up a string quartet and add percussion and brass to the mix, and what you get is the flexibility to perform anywhere from a living room to a concert hall, and to silence that room and fill it with simply sublime sonic atmosphere.
Which is what happens tonight at The Scala. The otherwise soulless converted cinema offers no obstacle to the creation of a magical ambience from the start.
After a fine support set from Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock (recently featured on Folk Radio UK and beautifully described by Adrian on Twitter as “otherly”), Rachel and Becky emerge to greet a room perceptively filled with silent anticipation.
This being a mini-tour in celebration of the band’s tenth anniversary, the set is a representative and almost chronological journey through their eclectic back catalogue, encompassing five studio albums, a myriad of collaborations and side-projects, and three albums of appropriately named Diversions.
Opener John Dead is sung a capella. A sea shanty originating from the Windward Isles and learned via Dad George Unthank’s harmony group The Keelers, the song appeared on the band’s 2005 debut album Cruel Sister (when they were known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset). The sisters’ harmonies are immediately in-your-face and wow-inducing, their north-east accents to the fore, like honey dripping from a spoon.
Then comes Cyril Tawney’s On a Monday Morning, from the same album, the flawless delivery a mere hint of the pleasures to come.
As the sisters are gradually joined by the remaining musicians, the traditional feel of the earlier albums is further represented by I Wish, from 2007’s The Bairns. It’s an oft-covered song, but it is Unthanked with elegance and originality.
Annachie Gordon from 2009’s Here’s the Tender Coming is another traditional ballad, learned by the sisters from Nic Jones’s recording. Their performance gradually builds tension and emotion without any discernible increase in volume – a rare skill.
Now we’re taken forward in time to 2015’s universally acclaimed album Mount the Air – and a shortened version of the title track – it will be reprised later. The haunting trumpet theme a mere hint of orchestral delights to come.
Madam is another trad/arr from the same album and the same Dorset Book of Folk Songs source as the song which inspires the title track. Strings are to the fore in a wonderfully imaginative orchestral arrangement by McNally.
The distinctive piano introduction to Lucky Gilchrist allows the sisters (just) enough time to don their dancing clogs. McNally’s song was inspired by a lost and much-missed friend of Rachel’s. When it comes, the clog dancing – traditional Northumbrian tap dancing – adds aurally to the jaunty rhythm of the song and visually to a shared sense of celebrated heritage that The Unthanks have come to represent to many of us exiled north-easterners.
Next, from the 2011 album Last, comes a stunning yet respectful reinterpretation of the King Crimson epic Starless. Lizzie Jones’s muted trumpet carries the main motif expressively, and the full band arrangement is mighty. The delightfully enigmatic Flutter from Mount The Air follows, a plaintive piece for which Becky wrote the words and co-wrote the music, a new departure and a promising sign of future possibilities.
Two songs from Diversions Vol. 3: Songs From The Shipyards, Romantic Tees and Shipbuilding (inspired one senses from Robert Wyatt’s version rather than Costello’s) are evocative reminders both of lost industry and the futility of war.
King of Rome follows, a heart-warming Dave Sudbury tale about a record-breaking racing pigeon from Edwardian times, which appeared on Diversions Vol. 2, a 2012 live album recorded with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Again, Lizzie Jones’s trumpet themes are moving and timeless.
As if to squeeze the last juices of poignancy from the back catalogue, next comes A War Film, based on a poem about a mother imagining her son going off to war, written for A Time and a Place – Musical Meditations on the First World War, a multi-media collaboration with friend and fellow Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee for the Great War’s centenary commemorations.
Serious subject matter over with, The Unthanks’ take on The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles is suitably seasonal and jolly, then we’re back into Mount the Air, an atmospheric ten minute climax to the set, incorporating every Unthankian tool at their disposal, clogs included. It’s an epic piece, easily justifying the high praise heaped upon that album from every quarter.
A rousing encore of Here’s the Tender Coming finds the knowledgeable audience singing along in harmony, and my thesaurus of descriptive superlatives (now that would be handy) has been tested to its limits.
Who knows what the next ten years holds for The Unthanks –even they would surely not have predicted the paths and byways they were to take when they set out ten years ago, singing traditional folk songs “to get into festivals free”.
But Adrian McNally’s masterful arranging skills and the sisters’ nascent but promising writing contributions equip them with the tools and flexibility to try almost anything.
The Unthanks challenge preconceptions and continually drive back the boundaries of the traditional folk music genre, exploring deep into its jazzy, orchestral and progressive corners. As their website warns, “label us at your peril!” Here’s to many more decades of unpredictable awesomeness.
Review by: Ian Taylor