Monday, 23 March 2015

The Unthanks

20th March 2015
The Unthanks - Edinburgh 2015

Edinburgh Queens Hall

I discovered The Unthanks really rather late in their existence; me sitting open-mouthed one evening a couple of years ago having stumbled upon the bizarrely beautiful things they had done to King Crimson’s Starless.
Subsequent digging through their back catalogue unearthed a series of albums which, although were all patchy to a degree, nevertheless housed a quite stunning smorgasbord of delights:  The King of Rome, The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, Close The Coalhouse Door, Black Trade, Here’s The Tender Coming, Fareweel Regality, to name just my favourites – all traditional or contemporary folk songs given a unique Unthanksing treatment.  And recordings which, much to daughter’s chagrin, I have played incessantly since.
But here’s the thing – none of these, what I would suggest are the closest the band have to "Greatest Hits", were performed on this particular evening.
Instead the bulk of the show (particularly the first set) comprised tracks from their recently-released album Mount The Air.  This reliance upon new songs whilst perhaps reflecting an increased confidence in their abilities as songwriters, did at times put me in mind of that infamous Wembley gig back in 1975 when Elton John ignored almost all of his hits and instead performed his newly-released Captain Fantastic album in its entirety.
Rachel Unthank - Edinburgh 2015

Rachel Unthank & Niopha Keegan - Edinburgh 2015

The Unthanks - Edinburgh 2015

The Unthanks - Edinburgh 2015

Becky Unthank, Rachel Unthank & Victoria Rule (flugelhorn)
Becky & Rachel Unthank - Edinburgh 2015
The decidedly low-key Hawthorn opened this evening’s proceedings, and the first set progressed through a procession of walking-paced renditions from the new album.  I revelled in them, particularly Died For Love, but I could understand how anyone unfamiliar with the songs would perhaps find them all just a wee bit samey.  Rachel and Becky’s voices were a delight throughout – aided and abetted by some chillingly evocative trumpet work by Victoria Rule.
The first half of the set concluded with the ten minute epic Mount The Air which was a real spellbinder, particularly so when the tempo picked up for the climax.  Folk or not–Folk, this was sublime music, reminiscent of the best of 1970s (feminine side, Adrian) prog, in my opinion.
The second-half opened with Niopha Keegan’s solo violin piece For Dad – pleasant enough, but hardly essential - before The Magpie followed, but this was tame stuff indeed.
The brace of songs from the Robert Wyatt/Anthony & The Johnsons cover album, however, were both hard work to sit through.  The band chose to tone down the at times atonal arrangement to Out Of The Blue, but for all the anger in Rachel’s vocal she barely touched the level of vitriol in Wyatt’s original, I felt.  With Anthony & The Johnson’s Spiralling poor Becky really was on a hiding to nothing, as the perfection of Hegarty's fragile plaintive rendition was never going to be improved upon.  Brave experiments both, but neither truly worked.
Things picked up with Becky’s delightfully fragile Flutter, before Lucky Gilchrist and Starless closed out the main set; Victoria Rule’s work elevating the latter immensely.
For an encore a short a cappella performance prefaced a sprightly reprise of the climax to Mount The Air and, with the Edinburgh crowd giving a standing ovation, I felt this appeared a perfect place to end the show.  But with typical Unthanks contrariness, the gentle Last was used to close out proceedings.
Although I had really enjoyed the majority of the show, Wife was slightly more reticent.  She loved the beauty of the girls' voices, but found the unremitting grimness….well, just too grim.  We both noted the evening’s only up-tempo number Lucky Gilchrist was in fact an elegy to a dead friend, whilst even the innocent sounding Last Lullaby held a sting when we thought about it.  After all, under what circumstances would a mother sing a last lullaby to a child?  We could think of no pleasant ones.
Wife would, I am sure, have enjoyed proceedings rather more had two or three of the “Greatest Hits” listed above been performed.  But I feel beneath the veneer of Becky and Rachel’s soft fluffiness, and Adrian’s genuine bonhomie there lies a brutally uncompromising approach to their art.  One can almost imagine their Mission Statement: 

We are the Unthanks, and WE will decide which paths we choose to take.  If you wish to travel with us, that would be wonderful and you will be made most welcome.  But there shall be no compromises.  For we shall not detour nor slow down for stragglers, and we shall assuredly visit some decidedly dark places.

It is an attitude which, in a music industry obsessed with the pursuit of the quick buck, strikes me as a really rather wonderful thing. 

That being said, I think I should happily have traded one of my lesser used limbs to have heard Fareweel Regality close the show.
Felton Lonnin
Died For Love
Last Lullaby
Mount The Air
For Dad
Out Of The Blue
Lucky Gilchrist
?The Wind, The Wind
Mount The Air (reprise)

The Young'uns

Which just leaves us, I suppose, this evening’s support act: The Young‘uns, who are Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes, three chaps from Stockton-On-Tees who, in the words of their own website:

"A decade after first burping their way through a sea shanty as inebriated teenagers at Stockton Folk Club, The Young’uns (so called that night because they were the youngest people at the club by over 40 years) have developed their craft, absorbed the musical heritage of their native North East, sought inspiration from the hundreds of performers they have heard and are now preparing to take their music to a much wider audience than they ever imagined."

In between their witty banter the lads performed a capella two short sets of three songs, including a rousing version of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars and a delightfully vicious poke at Reality TV entitled You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street.

But the highlight was their closer: a three voice harmony arrangement of James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes, which had the audience listening in rapt silence, before producing a roar of approval at the conclusion the likes of which I have rarely heard given to a support act.

No comments:

Post a Comment