The Unthanks played The Empire with a full 10-piece ensemble as part of a major tour promoting their 8th album Mount The Air.
It was Friday 13th – unlucky for some. And considering the night so thoroughly steeped in tradition and folk ahead of me, I perhaps needed to take this portent to mind. I didn’t though. I was late and drove poorly, luckily arriving unscathed to line up outside the Empire Music Hall.
The Unthanks have been bringing us English folk music, in their own perfectly formed, arranged and uniquely vocalised way, for ten years or so now. This night offered us plenty more of that, and it also offered unexpected other directions for the band. They opened with “Hawthorne”, a poem by Cornish poet Charles Causley that they’ve put to music; and as it started, stillness crept into the crowded hall. The arrangements they had written for the performances in this tour were manipulative. They pulled at the pit of your stomach with the strings and their unique wistful voices. With “Hawthorne” it was the trumpet that did it; that tender, mournful trumpet playing by Victoria Rule. It made things slow down, it made me long to hear and understand what sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank were singing.
There was a moody jazz core to the trumpet and percussion on the album’s title track “Mount The Air.” This mixed like salt and sugar with the folk melodies and sentiments in their lyrics, offering lines like “I’ll mount the air on swallows’ wings to find my dearest dear.” There was a big build up in the song that culminated in the sisters clog dancing; an occurrence that repeated itself during the gig. I hadn’t seen them perform before and I wasn’t expecting that. But it makes sense. It was just another expression of the traditions they work with, and were performing tonight. The Unthanks are immersed in these traditions. The brass and strings would be a regular facet of their sound to illustrate this, and tonight the 10-piece ensemble added a wider landscape to all that folk.
There was another key element. The essence to a lot of their songs was sombre. “Died for Love” for example was a tragic song. Admittedly it didn’t have that heart breaking brass to add ballast; but Becky Unthank’s stilling voice, and Rachel’s harmonies, left no need for anything else to set the mood. As the song progressed though, Adrian McNally’s lingering piano was followed by strings, and drums, and lights, and then louder vocals. It became dramatic, and it dragged a gamut of emotions with it.
Not all were so sombre it must be said, with the likes of “Lucky Gilchrist” bringing cheers from sections of the crowd who had already been converted; and even the lovely “Last Lullaby” brought more joy than intensity to the stage. There was also an ongoing playful connection between the performers up there, now and again teasing each other and pointedly happy to be there. Even their choice of support, The Young’uns, with their a cappella stories and sea shanties brightened the room before The Unthanks came on.
The Unthanks shared their set list with other songwriters as well. They treated us to an incredible version of Robert Wyatt’s “Out of the Blue”, arranged by Becca Spencer and Lizzie Jones from the ensemble. Then on the string-quartet based introduction to King Crimson’s “Starless”, the two sisters were waiting, listening, measuring the sound. At one stage they simultaneously raised their hands and pulled their hair back from their faces, oblivious of the other’s dual movements. It was a picture of perfect synchronicity, and it characterised the whole night.
They ended with another clog dance, leaving behind a rapturous crowd and a stage strewn with a myriad of instruments. This had been a truly bonny night. Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com