I think anyone who has followed The Unthanks career from small folk club nights above pubs to the acoustic dreambox on the south of the Thames knows this is exactly where they were headed. Although at the same time it shows a will to break out from their roots and do what they bloody well please.
I recall when I first saw them I went online to discover more and encountered unrest on the folk forums. They had just signed a deal with a major label to distribute their acclaimed 2nd album ‘The Bairns’ and this was seen as worse than the devil himself. I thought notions of ‘selling out’ or ‘breadheads’ had died with Jerry Garcia but it was alive and well in the straitjacket folk cognoscenti. They appeared to miss that this was a fresh unique pair of voices that could reach a larger audience. They hate being labelled, as anything and have always defied expectations.
I had seen The Unthanks perform with an orchestra in Liverpool in 2015 and they were clearly nervous about the performance. Tonight they showed no signs of anxiety as an early doors ‘Mount The Air’ simply flew. The strings propelled the song, Rachel & Becky skyward in a most thrillingly exciting rush that made your heart leap. You could imagine it soundtracking eagles soaring over rolling hills, racing close to the ground before looping upwards and away.
‘Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk’ was given a Kurt Weillian swagger and woozy uneasy atmosphere befitting a tale of domestic violence and cruelty. Rachel’s performance matched the anger and violence of the music as she defiantly set out her plans to defy her husband, get missed and destroy.
I found ‘Foundling’ a little dull on record but this arrangement bought forth all the pathos of the sad, sad situation. Becky’s mournful delivery from child and mothers viewpoint was heart breaking. The pre interval sing about a Scottish silkie produced a gorgeous five part harmony between artist and audience.
Conductor Charles Hazelwood led the Army Of Generals superbly, reminding Mr pal Drakey of a young Alan Cumming in his movements. Stalwart Unthanks, Niopha Keegan, Chris Price and Adrian MacNally provide their usual colour and musical depth to the material.
‘Last’, ‘At First She Starts’ and more are all given fresh sounds and the sisters appear to be relishing hearing their songs in the hands of such gifted musicians. They end with ‘a bit of dodgy Prog’ in a sublime Starless with a beautiful trumpet melody (by Lizzie Jones?). A quick reprise of ‘Mount The Air with clog dancing brings an emotional night to a fitting climax.
Their albums have become more intricate, adventurous and as they have been able to attract (and afford let’s face it) an audience that appreciates that. To expect any less us like those booing Dylan for going electric – have you not been paying attention?
This is music for the people as thrilling, moving and exciting as live music can be. Always different, always the same