While we’re having a bit of a run at some modern folk with deep and old roots, via Lisa O’Neill’s new album and the thinking behind the new label set up by Geoff Travis to release that album , Wind Back Wednesday slips on some clogs for a Sydney Festival show in 2011 from Northumbria’s The Unthanks.
If someone could tour them again that would be grand, thanks.
The Famous Spiegeltent, January 28
In their three trips to Australia now we’ve seen the Unthanks change name (from Rachel Unthank and the Winterset), change lineups on each visit (fiddler Niopha Keegan is on her second tour, guitarist Chris Price and pianist Adrian McNally their first as part of the band) and bring in a few more original songs into their core of material from the north-east of England (McNally’s amusing and sweet tribute to a friend, Lucky Gilchrist, providing a rare jocular touch in the set now).
But along with the always popular clog dancing, unchanged are the keen and complementary vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank (and at key moments, the marvellous Keegan too) and their ability to weave together small but potent tragedies with strands of quite affecting beauty.
While the beauty is important - in Because He Was A Bonny Lad it was like listening to the chimes of handbell ringers as they sang - that weaving is crucial: nothing is entirely one or the other in their repertoire, or in the lives of the people whose stories they tell.
Take Here's The Tender Coming, where a gentle, slowly opening melody glides over the piano and violin, the Unthank voices a delicate charm.
Listen to the words though and you hear the tender is a boat taking press-ganged men away from their families to awaiting ship of war and that the prettiness here is but surface: beneath it is churning sadness.
In Gan To The Kye, new to the set but originally from the border country of England and Scotland, there is an almost stately, processional feel but chipping away at its edges is a hint of looming distress which makes it clear that while we’re in the heather, this is not a song for gambolling. Likewise, in Alex Glasgow's Close The Coal House Door, originally written for a 1960s television drama, Price and McNally share the piano, the sisters alternate voices and the song is balanced between vocal warmth and the chill of “blood from brokens hands and feet”.
In the hands of the Unthanks that song feels as deeply soaked into the land as the words of the bowed but unbroken 19th century coal-working teenager in the powerful The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw. Some things don’t ever seem to change.