wed 24/04/2019

The Unthanks, Union Chapel | reviews, news & interviews

The Unthanks, Union Chapel

The Unthanks, Union Chapel

Geordie girl band with a difference play and clog-dance

The Unthanks: clog dancing and damn good fun

Geordies love music. From Brian Johnson’s cap to Jimmy Nail’s crocodile shoes, they have melody in their blood. And they love a good story. All of which makes it little wonder that North-Eastern sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank are able to mine such a deep seam of Northumbrian folk music. What’s more remarkable is how they sing material so traditional, in accents so broad, and still sound so contemporary. It makes them different; it’s possibly what makes them so loved.

It was not the sound, however of the girls that, last night, was, initially, most striking. It was their sense of theatre. Rachel and Becky dressed in Fifties frocks looking like characters in one of their songs, and their voices oozed as if they were telling the stories for the first time. Younger sister Becky carried a surprising amount of the lead vocals and her deep warm voice poured like Newcastle Brown Ale. Rachel tones were higher and clearer, but both vocals were more of the club than the chamber concert, and both lifted songs that were heavy and bleak, making them feel movingly sad and unexpectedly affecting. Such were “Twenty Long Weeks”, “Sad February” and “Felton Lonnin” tonight.

Their voices oozed as if they were telling the stories for the first time

The sadness of songs was not only redeemed by the skill of the expression but also by the banter between songs. And the clog dancing. Seeing the girls dancing as if they competing at a regional talent concert was a bizarre sight but also utterly charming, and it gave “Lucky Gilchrist”, a song about the death of a flamboyant friend, a real sense of joy. The latter also showcased some of the contemporary classical influence that is crept in, and which the touring band effortlessly performed in the innovative reworking of "Annachie Gordon", and the prayer-like “Here’s the Tender Coming”.

Mining song “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw”, with its vivid lyrics about women down the pits, shamed by their muscles and bald patches, has become a fast favourite and got the ovation it deserved. As did Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song”, which was beautiful lunacy, mixing images of alcohol, insanity and the sea. Becky sang it with sadness as if it were about the streets she grew up in, just as they both sang “Patience” as if she was their great aunt. 

The sadness of songs was not only redeemed by the skill of the expression but also by the banter between songs. And the clog dancing. Seeing the girls dancing as if they are competing at a regional talent concert may be a bizarre sight but it’s utterly charming, and it gave “Lucky Gilchrist”, a song about the death of a flamboyant friend, a real sense of joy. The latter also showcases some of the contemporary classical influence that is creeping in, and which the touring band effortlessly performed in the innovative reworking of "Annachie Gordon", and the prayer-like “Here’s the Tender Coming”.

The highlight of the evening, though, was surely the slow shanty song “John Dead”, which was sung off mic. Seeing the sisters looking at each other to get their bearings, suddenly they looked like little girls and suddenly you could imagine how it must have been when they were singing in their front room.

Their cover of Nick Drake’s “River Man” , however, (apparently,  a favourite with the band) showed how their a capella, when done too slowly, can be a bit turgid. But with "Betsy Bell" the clogs came on again (pictured left), the crowd were instructed to sing and the fun began again. The chapel’s curfew fell to the strains of "Blackbird", written by former keyboard player Belinda O’Hooley..

The Unthanks are one of those bands in the strange position of being simultaneously extremely trendy, and without really any hope of actually being fashionable. Do they care? I doubt it.

Watch The Unthanks play "The Testimony of Patience Kershaw" on YouTube:

You could imagine how it must have been when they were singing in their front room

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