Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by John Bentley

The Unthanks

Those coming to The Ritz tonight expecting a folk concert in the vein of a Watersons or June Tabor show were in for a surprise. I know that I was.

Traditional Northumbrian ballads were on offer. There was clog dancing too. Guitars? There were none. Instead a grand piano, a string quartet, double bass, drums, trumpet and a flugelhorn. This was another music in a different kitchen.

The Unthanks

Two memories of The Unthanks’ show will stick with me. The first was the affinity between siblings Rachel and Becky Unthank (just the way that they looked at each other and held hands at the close of the show was a moment to savour). The second was the majesty of the music, particularly the arrangements and the prominence of the trumpet. Talk about folk as a springboard into a sea of possibilities…

The show begins. Before a note is played Rachel is welcoming the audience and Becky is reminiscing about her student days in Manchester and clubbing at The Ritz. Audience rapport is established.

The Unthanks

‘Hawthorne’, a poem by Charles Causley, opens proceedings with just Becky’s voice and piano before the trumpet of Victoria Rule signals we are in for an evening unordinary. The solo she takes is deeply affecting and her star rises further on the next number… the ten minute title track of the new album, Mount The Air. Referencing Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain there is some stunning solo work before the rest of the ten piece ‘fancy band’ takes off and creates hypnotic weaving vapour trails. The sisters’ clog dancing routine signals return to land. It is a hugely impressive performance and as pianist and musical director Adrian McNally observes: ‘you might as well go home now as it doesn’t get any better than that’. He is correct. There are some sublime moments to come but his transformation of a single verse from a Dorset songbook into a beast as big as this is unbeatable.

The Unthanks

Wry smiles all around as Adrian introduces the next song and dedicates it to wife (Rachel). It is called: ‘Madam’. The lovely lilting ‘Last Lullaby’ follows; a traditional tune with new lyrics by Rachel (mother of two young ‘uns) and featuring some fine violin parts. It swings.

Four more from the new album: ‘Died for Love’; ‘Flutter’ (Becky’s first published song) and lead fiddler Niopha Keegan’s instrumental ‘For Dad’ follow. We then have the second highlight of the night: a gorgeous rendition of ‘Magpie’, the traditional children’s nursery rhyme. Sung acapella by Rachel, Becky and first violinist, Kath Ord the blend of unadorned voices is a delight.

So far only tracks from the new album have been aired… it is their first studio album for four years so perhaps that is understandable. Diversions got in the way – two of which follow: Robert Wyatt’s post bomb blast ‘Out of the Blue’ (with that great line ‘something unbelievable is happening to the floor’) and Antony Hegarty’s ‘Spiralling’.

The Unthanks

The show closes with their magisterial take on King Crimson’s ‘Starless’. Like much of Unthanks music it is slow, mournful and melancholic. This is not a night for dancing on the ceiling and as Adrian notes in his introduction ‘I’d like to play this for anyone who wishes they had a seat’. Communal sighs suggest that The Ritz was not the most suitable venue. If only audiences would once again sit cross-legged on the floor.

Time enough for three encores including ‘Lucky Gilchrist’ (performed on Jools Holland in 2009) replete with a winning combination of Steve Reich-a-like repeated phrases, a Freddie Mercury reference and yet more clog dancing. Strangely strange but oddly normal.

Superb sound; great lights and a top show.

The Young'uns

Opening act was The Young’uns… three entertaining and engaging Teesside chaps with a largely a-cappella set. Harmonies on ‘Between the Wars’ and ‘Benefit Street’ were highlights. Their tale about Private Thomas Hughes and his message in a bottle dropped in the English Channel in 1914 and discovered 85 years later got me ‘googling’.

The Unthanks Setlist: Hawthorn; Mount The Air; Madam; Last Lullaby; Felton Lonnin; Died for Love, Flutter; For Dad; Magpie; Out of the Blue; Spiralling; Starless; The Wind The Wind; Lucky Gilchrist; Last

One Response to “The Unthanks + The Young’uns at The Ritz, Manchester, UK – 11th March 2015”

  1. Victoria Says:

    Andrew Lindsay writes superbly. Anyone not there would definitely want to be next time…..

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