Ye good people, let us assemble for an evening of hope and joy out from darkness and despair…
A quiet thrill of anticipation is in the air at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff ahead of The Unthanks’ live show. Something special – nay, more than that – something akin to a spiritual gathering awaits. Stage right, composer/producer/musical director/vocalist Adrian McNally on grand piano. Stage left, drummer Martin Douglas. Nearest to him, Dan Rogers (double bass and electric) and guitarist/vocalist Chris Price (also sharing bass duties). In between is lone brass instrumentalist, Welsh-born Lizzie Jones, trumpeter and a string quartet comprised of Kath Ord (violin), Niopha Keegan (fiddle/violin/vocals), Chrissie Slater (viola) and Ele Leckie (cello).
Centre-front, of course, are Tyne And Wear-raised singing sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Ladies and gentlemen, these are The Unthanks, on their first major tour since COVID lockdown.
Myths; tides; a woman’s lot pt 1: abuse
We start with three songs from the group’s eagerly awaited album Sorrows Away, due in autumn. Rachel and Niopha lend vocal support to Becky during their rendition of The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry, an old tale originating from Orkney. The record’s haunting debut single, Gordon Bok’s The Bay Of Fundy, is destined to become a mainstay hit in their repertoire, and The Sandgate Dandling Song, a woeful lullaby by blind fiddler Bobby Nunn c.1842, is poignantly sung solo by Rachel.
Dreams taking flight; the devil’s bird; keeping watch
Upbeat and inspiring, The King Of Rome is a cover of Dave Sudbury’s 1913 song about a champion racing pigeon. Magpie finds the trio of Becky, Rachel and Niopha leading again, with McNally’s harmonium supplying an ominous undercurrent.
A woman’s lot pt 2: desertion; the truth; re-awakening
Rachel, solo again, heartbreakingly interprets The Month Of January. A new composition by Becky, The Old News, is a bit of a rocker by The Unthanks’ standards, with Douglas kicking it out; it’ll feature on Sorrows Away, whose title track follows. In the middle of the latter number, we get a dramatic version of Love Is Kind, whose fierce fiddling takes us to the set’s intermission.
I canna find my bairn; lost at sea; absent friend(s)
Rachel’s toe-tapping, intended to mimic a frantically pacing mam, accompanies the atmospheric lament for a lost child, Felton Lonnin. Dialogue from the Maxine Peake-penned play about Lillian Bilocca and the Hull triple trawler tragedy is used in an urgent retelling of A Whistling Woman. McNally’s Lucky Gilchrist, again tragic in its topic, begins with the shuffles, stomping and taps of the siblings’ clog dancing.
As I waak alang; Bonnie Prince Charlie; searching always
Rachel was inspired to write The Isabella Coke Ovens, she says, by long walks past these abandoned colliery features. The Jacobite-themed Royal Blackbird is given a contemporary vibe through Jones’ jazzy notes as Rachel and Becky exchange lead vocals; they finish an original, the epic tearjerker Mount The Air, by getting their clogs on again.
The encore comprises an audience singalong to another traditional tune, Fareweel Regality, before the crowd again joins in for a reprise of Sorrows Away. All 11 onstage were exceptional this evening – Lizzie Jones, who threw everything into her mournfully soaring trumpet playing, perhaps warrants special mention – while Rachel and Becky’s vocals are totally earthy yet absolutely pure. The Unthanks takes one over wild land and sea but always envelops you in a warm cwtch.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Mon 11 July
words RHONDA LEE REALI photos KAT GOLLOCK
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