Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Unthanks

These are a band from the North of England comprising two sisters (Rachel and Becky Unthank) and some other musicians. They play music that draws from the Northumbrian folk tradition. I went to see them playing in Vicar Street, following along my friends in an easily led manner.

Before saying too much about the Unthanks I will first mention the support band, Trembling Bells. I think I had them mixed up with any number of other bands in my mind – Trembling Blue Stars, Howling Bells, School of Seven Bells, Broken Bells, the Belle Stars, etc. – and consequently was not really expecting much from them. However, they turned out to be purveyors of a rather appealing folk-rock blend like mama used to make, referencing that Fairport Convention vibe by having an amazingly talented lady singer whose luminous voice soared and shone above us.

For all that, the Trembling Bells did not seem to be entirely retro, or at least not entirely recreative of the late 1960s folk rock sound, with some of their tunes managing to suggest an influence by Thin Lizzy (in the guitar sounds) or the early 1990s shoegazers. They also looked great – at one point one of them joked that they had modelled their appearance on Scooby Doo extras and I could see their point but thought they looked cooler than that. So I enjoyed them a lot (much more than most of my friends who were at this concert) and regret not picking up one of their albums on the night. Does anyone know anything further about them?

The Unthanks themselves – well they be folky. I think most of the songs are traditional tunes from Northumbria, typically about coal mining, ship building, manufacturing industry and other vanished folk customs of that part of the world. They also have songs about people being unlucky and love and that kind of thing. Rachel and Becky do most of the singing, though some of the others provide occasional backing vocals. The music is maybe a bit more full-on than the folky set up would suggest, embracing a variety of string and brass instruments that you would not normally associate with folk music, as well as electric instruments of various types.

Some of my colleagues were a bit less than fond of the first couple of songs ("it sounds a bit like Clannad!"), with things being considered a bit too far removed from what folky music is meant to sound like. But either we were assimilated to the Unthank sound or they moved to tunes more like what we expected subsequently, for the rest of the set met with great approval. That said, we could have done with a few more of the tracks where the Unthank sisters sang unaccompanied away from the mics, as that gave us the real folk deal.

The one great fascinating feature of the Unthanks is that they incorporate clog dancing into their performance. Some of their tunes have little interludes in which clogs are danced with. I understand that normally both sisters serve up a four feet clog attack, but this time round only Becky was on clog duties, as Rachel was about eight months pregnant* and staying away from clogs on medical advice. The clog dancing basically amounted to a form of tap dancing, not entirely dissimilar to Irish dancing or the type of thing you get on Broadway. I did think, though, that it was a pity that the clogging only really appeared as interludes within songs, so we never really got clog-dancing playing against vocals and more general musical accompaniment. I do not know how interesting that would actually sound, but I was put in mind of American indie band Tilly And The Wall, who apparently use tap dancing instead of drumming.

The Unthanks milled around after the show in manner most unusual for a name band. One of my friends was talking about accosting Becky Unthank and demanding her hand in marriage, but he thought better of it.

An inuit panda production

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* It was only when the clogging was about to start that Rachel's condition was mentioned; up to then I had just assumed that she was, eh, big-boned.

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