So, where does someone (me) start when reviewing a band that they do not know much about? Well, this is a review of The Unthanks in Harrogate. There are far more qualified people who could lay claim to being an authority on the matter - Indeed, I know very little about the scene they come from. However, they have a new fan out of me.
There are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are. You might find them singing in a Tyneside folk club one night, and playing to 2000 Londoners the next, having performed to a primary school in the afternoon. You might find them collaborating with Adrian Utley (Portishead) one moment, and writing the score to an archive film about shipyards the next. Or visiting Africa with Damon Albarn, Flea and Joan As Policewoman and then presenting a TV programme for BBC4 about traditional dance. Rubbing shoulders with Robert Plant, Adele, Elbow and Radiohead at the Mercurys, or in a bunkhouse on the coastline of Northumberland cooking for 50 fans on one of their residential singing weekends. Running singing sessions in the back of a pub on a Monday before heading off to tour America or Australia on the Tuesday. Signing licensing deals with EMI while continuing to record vocals in broom cupboards under the stairs. Spending 9-5 managing their own careers without agents or labels, and heading down the studio in the evening to write scores for a project with a symphony orchestra. Collaborating with Orbital while championing songs from the folk club floor singers of the North East and re-presenting them to anyone who wants to listen. You’ll find them played by the folk show on BBC Radio 2, but equally by cutting edge BBC6 Music, Radio 3 and Radio 1 DJs. You might find them on the cover of a folk magazine like fRoots or in the pages of NME. Definable only by their restless eccentricity, there are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are, or much point in guessing what they’ll do next.*
So where do I start reviewing such a stellar band? Well, I will approach them as someone who’s hometown they played. I will approach this review as a gobsmacked audience member who witnessed a spectacle. I will approach this review as a new fan.
I was one of the younger audience members. Most were grey of hair (lots of beards) but very welcoming. I snuck in to my seat quite late, just before the gig started, and managed to strike up a conversation with the chap next to me (he started it). There was no support act for the evening - on walked the band. The band comprise of a core, creative five - Rachel and Becky Unthank (real names), Adrian McNally as writer, producer and pianist, Chris Price on guitars and bass, and Niopha Keegan on fiddle. Price grew up on the same street as McNally in a mining village near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, while Keegan was born to Irish parents and grew up in St Albans on the London Irish scene. This five are The Unthanks, yet since 2009, only twice have they toured as a five. More commonly, they have toured as 10 piece, adding drums, a string quartet and trumpet to their ranks in order to bring their expansive album arrangements to the stage in the full glory. So pictures of the five of them give a misleading impression of what to expect live, and so frequently they keep it simpler by just having Rachel and Becky Unthank in press shots. But that creates a bit of a lie, because the musical director and creative nucleus of the band is McNally, but a shot of the trio would deny Chris and Niopha, while a shot of the 5 of them denies their physical reality as a 10 piece on stage, which can’t be photographed with any meaning because the add-on 5 are composed of session musicians who are rarely the same twice, even though a few have become valued regulars. It is just another respect in which The Unthanks are hard to label or pin down, and why they’re unlikely to win any band or duo awards because no one knows what they are!
I was first introduced to The Unthanks by Scooby on the Sound Of Wonder Radio Show - he really rates them & I have tracked down their album Mount The Air** off the back of that. What drew me to love this group from the outset was that they seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded Jazz: almost as a launch pad for further possibilities.
Both of their voices are true wonders. Good folk music is the interpretation of older songs: presenting them afresh for a new generation - this is what The Unthanks do so well. The Unthanks represent old working songs and ballads to a new generation - a generation not so enamored with the traditional heritage of these isles. I admit that a lot of the crowd were Radio 2 listeners - I am not in that demographic. Most folk listeners are in the Radio 2 demographic - I am not in that demographic. All of the audience members enjoyed the gig - I am in that demographic. I truly was a spectacle. Whilst there was no ‘Hi-dum-diddly’ there was a lot of clog dancing (a bonus). It is rare that I listen to music for comfort - but The Unthanks - yes - I have a soft-spot for them.
There were two highlights for me. The first was a beautiful rendition of The King Of Rome - I found the above recording of a live version above on on their Soundcloud. They sang pitch perfect and the band were awe-inspiring - however, by the time they had finished their set I was disappointed; they did not play ‘their magpie song’. The audience went crazy for an encore - everyone wearing sensible shoes was stamping and hollering. Then the core members of The Unthanks returned to the stage and gave a spine-thinglingly-gothic rendition of my favourite Unthanks songs - I was all smile (as much as someone who dresses in black can be).
*Borrowed from their site
**Best album at The BBC Folk Awards