The Unthanks and the Quiet Subversion
It was part of a series of shows at St George’s Church for Cathedral Quarter Arts festival. English folk group The Unthanks had returned to Belfast just over a year since their last visit. Two Unthank sisters and their steady three collaborators brought their voices, piano, guitar and violin to the perfect setting.
They started with a song borrowed from singer-songwriter Cyril Tawney. “Too soon to be out of me bed,” Rachel Unthank’s clear calling voice sang to single notes on Adrian McNally’s bleak piano. Then Becky Unthank’s muslin covered, loosely woven singing took over the words, and the colour of the song altered slightly, hinting at sepia. The third woman on stage, Niopha Keegan added another verse, built the layers in the story.
“A Great Northern River” brought Chris Price on stage to play guitar. It’s a song from Teesside about the ship building heritage embedded in its landscape and in its people. Again, the sisters took turns, shifting verses from clear and bright to gauzy, while Keegan’s violin pulled it all towards mournful.
They asked if any of us had been at their gig last year in The Empire, and went on to explain how this version of “Mount The Air” would be very different from last time. It’s the title track of their 2015 album, and at their previous performance in Belfast they had trumpet and a string section packed tight on stage. Tonight there was the pared back five of them. McNally spoke to explain the song before they started, but somehow I couldn’t hear a word. In a way though I didn’t need to. Keegan started with violin as the sisters stood at the back of the small stage. Hands in pockets or on hips, swaying side to side in synchronicity. As the piano and guitar mounted, the women stepped forward to the mics to sing one verse – then it was over.
They gave us mighty classics to maintain the sense of history from their adaptations of songs. Like the centuries old “Annachie Gordon”, and the gut wrenching, note perfect “The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw”, based on a real testimony that the 17 year old Patience Kershaw gave to the Children’s Employment Commission in mid-1800.
“Magpie” was another borrowing. Written by Dave Dodds, we were told of how he was inspired to write the song after giving a lift to an old lady who had started spitting on his car floor and muttering to herself, when a magpie had flown passed the window. The bird had flown in the wrong direction apparently, and to counteract the bad luck this would bring, “Devil devil I defy thee” needed to be repeated three times. The words were almost chanted by the women on stage, aiming towards hypnotic, medieval. The room was silent.
Folk music is a subversive business. It brings back stories from eons ago to help us notice how we are still battling the same powers, the same fights with right and wrong. “Hymn For Syria” however brought us right slap bang up to date when it came to our dilemmas on doing the right thing. “Silence but no peace” they sang as the piano rumbled like dark water. “We should take them all” was repeated. And repeated. And then if I’m not mistaken, there was a word change. “We shall take them all” they told us – we shall.
It may not have been eons ago, but the message behind their starkly beautiful version of Elvis Costello’s* “Shipbuilding” is poignant today; right now – as it considers the wealth that the Falklands War brought to traditional shipbuilding areas like Merseyside, North East England and Belfast. Building ships to replace those lost in the war, while at the same time they sent off their young to that same war, perhaps to die in those ships. It was Mr McNally on main vocals for this one, with an eventual chorus of all five on stage singing. The piano was the only instrument allowed.
They ended with “a little ditty called ‘Canny Hobbie Elliot’”. There were happy light voices from the sisters and bright airy strumming from Price. It culminated of course in a clog dance from Rachel and Becky, ending their performance on a sunny note, and ensuring attendees at this sold out show left with a good taste their mouth.
Photo Credit Bernie McAllister
*Shipbuilding“was by written Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music)