THE UNTHANK sisters and their backing band delivered an enchanting evening of top drawer, adventurous folk music before a bustling Mareel auditorium on Thursday.
A 250-plus turnout – at the start of a weekend when a fair few folkies are off to the Orkney festival – certainly goes some way to dispelling any notion that there’s no audience for English folk music in these parts.
There might be a heavenly, ethereal feel to their vocal performance, but the down-to-earth patois of the Gateshead siblings and their band saw the crowd immediately warm to the quintet.
We learned of their whistle-stop tour of the isles with Lynda (or should that be Wendy?) Anderson of Shetland Arts, rounded off by feasting on a “death row meal” at Scalloway Hotel. Don’t worry, Caroline and Peter, it was intended as a compliment!
Then it was time to launch into Becky and Rachel Unthank’s arrangement of Cyril Tawney’s ‘On a Monday Morning’. “Too soon to be back to this bus queue caper”, they intoned while violinist Niopha Keegan provided a third voice and the witty Adrian McNally supplied accompaniment on the Steinway.
Their two sets betrayed a healthy preoccupation with North East England’s proud industrial heritage, in particular its shipyards. It was a powerful reminder of a time, not so long ago, when Britain used to manufacture lots of stuff and work wasn’t primarily to be found in sedentary desk jobs.
But there was no wallowing nostalgia to be found in their treatment of that history.
Drawing on words penned by Geordie poet and songwriter Graham Mills and propelled by McNally’s rhythmic piano playing, the ironically-titled ‘Romantic Tees’ is a case in point: a warts-and-all memorial striking a balance between honouring honest, hard-working people and recognising it was a pretty rough old life too.
Also taken from the band’s 2012 ‘Songs From the Shipyards’ volume was a reading of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’. It saw McNally assuming lead vocal duties, joined by the sisters to haunting effect on the chorus, serving to highlight what a master craftsman Costello is.
There was room, too, for ‘Hymn for Syria’ – a poignant piece composed for a project with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, about how life at sea feels much safer than land for residents of the war-ravaged state.
Its five-part harmony was spine-tingling, while its theme – and that of a brace of songs about the First World War – place them alongside latter-day PJ Harvey in refusing to shy away from the darkest of topics.
Their most extensive Scottish tour to date sees the group performing as a five-piece, shorn of the string section, drums and trumpet employed during a collaboration with Lau at Glasgow Concert Hall back in January. “We didn’t think Loganair could cope,” quipped McNally.
Musically, the consummate but never overly showy playing of McNally, Keegan and guitarist Chris Price laid the perfect platform to demonstrate the Unthanks’ rare vocal prowess.
There was elegance in the instrumental opening to a truncated version of ‘Mount the Air’, the 10-minute title track and centrepiece of their 2015 album. It won a BBC Folk Award in April.
‘Magpie’, also from that record, featured quite stunning vocal interplay – a cappella but for the lone drone of a harmonium – from Becky and Rachel.
The sisters even found time for a spot of rapturously-received clog dancing at the end of their second set.
They nearly dissolved in a fit of the giggles during the encore, eventually regaining their poise to offer shades of Kate Rusby on the traditional ‘Here’s the Tender Coming’.
A sweetly-sung tune about a boat coming ashore to pressgang young men into becoming soldiers – never has Tom Waits’ quote “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things” felt more apt.
- Becky Unthank will be back at Mareel on 2 November for ‘Flit’, a project spearheaded by Martin Green of Lau featuring members of Portishead, Mogwai and folk singer Adam Holmes, along with BAFTA-winning animators whiterobot.