It took the Unthanks a decade, and many different guises, to produce a masterpiece like this year’s Mount The Air, but this stripped down 10th anniversary tour also showcases gems from their other projects.
The Mount The Air Tour featured ten people, but tonight it is just the full time members so its the joyous voices of sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank, pianist Adrian McNally who crafted the smart arrangements that has really upped their game, long serving fiddler Niopha Keegan and newish boy Chris Price on guitar/bass.
Anyone who saw them on the full band tour would have seen a group right at the top of their game, and who are arguably – in an era of dullards like Elbow – now our best British band, but amazingly this intimate format in such a small venue was even better.
At the heart of The Unthanks is a raw and sincere humanity incubated in the folk clubs of their youth which they celebrate with two stunning acapella versions of traditional tunes they learnt from their dad including sublime sea shanty Billy Riley.
But when the band saunter on this show really hits the heights as we are taken on a journey through their back catalogue as they absolutely smash I Wish from their breakthrough album The Bairns. Mount The Air’s title track is a ten minute epic on vinyl, but here it is stripped right back to the one verse folk ditty Becky discovered that inspired the track.
The Unthanks somehow manage to sound incredibly contemporary as well as being folk traditionalists as they reach back to their roots to cover Nic Jones’ Annachie Gordon with a heartfelt vocal from Becky. Then Rachel takes lead on a powerful rendition of The Testimony of Patience Kershaw based on the words of a real life teenager slowly being worked to death down a 19th century pit.
Becky strikes back closing the first set with traditional air The Galllowgate Lad as her sweeter tones get under the thick Geordie dialect. When they come back McNally has a go on vocals as they cover Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, and when the sisters kick in it becomes clear you will not see anything to surpass this in a live venue all year.
That’s the key to The Unthanks as they never milk their genetic gift for harmonies instead preferring to exploit the power of the human voice in different styles and through subtle arrangements. Even pompous Geordie rock god Sting makes an appearance as Rachel breathes life into Peggy’s Song from his failed shipbuilding musical.
Only a band as natural and charming as The Unthanks could get away with clog dancing, and is there something so unaffected and fun as they hammer it out during Cannily Hobby Elliott that you can’t but share in their joy and charm.
It is rare that you leave a show where not a note was wasted, but despite that precision it still felt like night out with old friends as The Unthanks actually bother to communicate with paying punters as welcome guests rather than an irritant. Even if you think folk is old fashioned bollocks you’d be a real mug not to see a group who so far ahead of the competition across most genres it is laughable
On a Monday Morning
Great Northern River
Mount The Air
The Testimony of Patience Kershaw
The Gallowgate Lad
Canny Hobby Elliott
Here’s The Tender Coming