Folk sensations the Unthanks toured Ireland recently. Although they played a concert in the Pepper Canister Church in Dublin, I did not go to that; nor did I go to see them in the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. No readers, I made the long trip all the way to another county and saw them play in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co. Wicklow. And I did so because this was the only date on their tour where they were going to be supported by the Keelers, the Geordie folkies in whose ranks are found George Unthank and Jim Mageean (who had taught us loads of great sea shanties at the Unthanks singing weekend), as well as two other gentlemen most skilled in the arts of singing. I think we were hoping the Keelers would include 'Chicken on a Raft' in their set and so we would be able to astonish other members of the audience by joining in with the chorus.
As it happened, there was no 'Chicken on a Raft' to be had, but there were a number of other top nautical and landlubber tunes, many of which feature on the new Keelers album. The two of these that most stuck with me are the one about some admiral who commanded the fleet blockading Brest during the Napoleonic Wars, who was well known for always being there to stop the Frenchies busting loose, and a song about Nelson's corpse being brought home pickled in rum after Trafalgar, with the conceit being that the dead admiral was still giving orders to the crew as they brought him to England for the last time. I have no more fondness for Nelson than for anyone who fought well on the wrong side, but there was a poignancy to the tune that sticks with me.
At the interval I sent my beloved to buy a copy of the Keelers album and then hid from the Unthanks in case they had all been practicing Finnish Sailor Wrestling since the weekend and were determined to now administer to me a sound thrashing.
Musically the Unthanks were playing with a somewhat stripped down line-up (though I only know this because they said so - I can no longer remember what a full and unadorned Unthanks line-up looks like). They played a variety of their folkie tunes but what I really found noticeable on some original compositions was a distinct influence of contemporary classical - in particular minimalism. If there is some kind of Unthanks-Reich team-up in the near future I would not be at all surprised. They also played many folk-tastic songs (of which the one whose lyrics are the 19th century testimony of a woman coal miner was particularly poignant) and their endlessly moving cover of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song'.
For the grand finale they were joined onstage by the Keelers to sing 'Tar Barrel in Dale', George Unthank's song about a bizarre folk custom in some Northumberland locality whereby people bring in the new year by going around with barrels of burning tar on their head; I think this is in a region untouched by modern health and safety legislation. The song has become something of an Unthanks anthem and we knew it well from the singing weekend (and from being made to sing it at previous Unthanks concerts), so we were able to join in. Huzzah!
After the concert I did not wait to say hello because I am shy and because we had to run to catch the last train out of Bray, lest we end up staying overnight in that Wicklow town.
Unthanks singing weekend: part 1 and part 2
Chicken on a Raft
Keelers image source
Unthanks image source