From Gateshead to Gustav Adolf’s Square in Stockholm, Rachel and Becky – The Unthanks sisters and their band, grace us with their presence, their North Eastern accents, their clog dancing and their wonderfully miserable songs of intimate loss and despair. The band – drums, bass, piano, trumpet and a four-piece string section would fit perfectly as a vehicle for Robert Wyatt and not surprisingly they have released an album of his and Antony And The Jonson’s songs in 2011. The band has no guitarist and wanders off into moody instrumental passages leaving the girls to sway to the beat and bask in the atmospheres that their band creates – tuneful, moody and perfectly arranged. So many unfretted instruments, brass and voices exquisitely executed with aplomb. This high level of musical performance, must be partly attributed to Adrian McNally, pianist, producer and Rachel’s husband.
Tonight they play a selection of tracks, some from their acclaimed latest album, Mount The Air (2015) including the ten minute opening track and one of my favourite’s, Flutter. Becky’s breathy delivery sweeps you off your feet, she reminds me of a female folky Colin Blunstone. Both Becky and Rachel share lead vocal, harmonize and sing in unison together, for Magpie bringing in a third voice from the strings (Niopha Keegan) for a feast of harmony that would scare the horns off the devil.
The sisters have that same magic as Klara and Johanna from First Aid Kit but whereas the latter draws from the sixties, The Unthanks draw from past centuries. They seem like they have been plucked from a farmhouse in Northumbria in another age and planted on stage in the present.
The crowd transfixed by their seductive melodies, politely clap, one must keep an air of decorum with this most English music. There’s no trace of influence from the outside, it’s pure grown on the harsh winter coast and the inland villages between the borders of Scotland and the outskirts of Newcastle. It’s that quintessentially English tradition explored by Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny and their family tree, along with Pentangle and Steelye Span except there’s no rock element at all (it isn’t Folk Rock) it lives somewhere in between June Tabor and the Bronte sisters. They are the younger generation of cool Folk, an extension of Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy they have injected something more into the genre, some kind of magic spell, a dust that lingers in the air charging the atmosphere with notions of timelessness.
After the show I talked to Becky and Rachel, humble warm and even unaware of how great they are and that of course makes them even greater. Tonight they lived up to all my hopes delivering a truly inspired performance.
Previous Unthanks Posts – Mount The Ar Review, Flutter video, Starless video: