It seems unfair these days to label The Unthanks a folk band when they have clearly moved way past the restrictive traditions of that genre which all too often puts people off engaging with our nation’s indigenous music.
They are on the road touring their new album Mount The Air and the dynamic live version of the epic title track shows why the Irish Club is packed out. Becky Unthank’s delicate vocals meshes with Adrian McNally’s piano then her sister Rachel takes over with her more earthy, urgent tones before their voices weave together as only siblings drilled through years of singing in Northumberland folk clubs can.
Meanwhile a string quartet, anchored by a pin sharp rhythm section, saw away in the background as Victoria Rule’s sublime trumpeting veers off into jazz tinged riffs. The whole effect is life affirming, raising the hairs on the back of your neck, and with some clog dancing thrown in by the sisters you will not enjoy a more transcendent live experience all year.
Since McNally joined the band – and married Rachel – he has been pushing them into ever challenging areas which the ten piece band crowded onto the stage all buy into. Becky’s first original song Flutter is a cracker, and shows how far she come as a performer since her nervy days in her older sister’s shadow.
The only jarring moment is long serving violinist Niopha Keegan’s traditional air For Dad which although beautifully played still feels like it belongs in a different band, and compared to the other songs is flimsy. Mind you, it then morphed into an unaccompanied Magpie as the sisters showed how two complementary voices can still make the traditional seem fresh and vital.
It was good to see despite universal critical acclaim for Mount The Air the Unthanks are still the same warm human beings they have always been. Becky’s often surreal introductions are always amusing, and Rachel took the opportunity to plug their successful singing weekends. Adrian was typically grumpy moaning his brightly coloured piano was only good for firewood.
If there is a criticism of the Unthanks is that they still rely too much on covering songs when they are clearly capable of writing quality sings. Still, that seems a bit petty when they can knock off a passionate version of Robert Wyatt’s Out Of The Blue followed by a monumental take on Antony Hegarty’s Spiralling as their glorious voices bring a purity to his obtuse words.
Closing with King Crimson’s Starless – artlessly stripping all the pomposity out – you are left with a band at the very top of their game performing hugely complex arrangements with consummate ease.
The simple fact is The Unthanks are now one of Britain’s national treasures, and if you have never see them you really need to rectify that unforgivable oversight as soon you can.