Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by John Bentley

The Trades Club is a socialist members cooperative in alt.Yorkshire’s Hebden Bridge… a hip, chilled out mill town noted for its liberal vibe and motley mixture of artists, alternative practitioners, New Age activists, LGBTs and urban commuters in search of the good life.

This cosy venue is a natural home to The Unthanks who’ve played here on several occasions; indeed, as Becky remarks, she once lived here in the town.

The Unthanks, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

Most were expecting the set list to be dominated by tunes from the recent album Lines, a partial collaboration with the marvellous Maxine Peake released in February 2019. There were completely absent as they are seemingly being saved for an Autumn tour in rather larger venues.

Tonight’s sold out show is billed as ‘Unaccompanied, As We Are’ and features Tyneside sisters, Rachel and Becky Unthank and band mate Niopha Keegan as a vocal trio. There are no instruments. It is all “Acapulco” according to support act Tim Dalling (more on him later).

Each show is being recorded for a future live album (pre-orders available now). The audience are under strict instructions to remain silent during each song. Opener ‘Guard Your Man Weel’ goes to plan but the follow-up ‘One By One’ is interrupted by an onstage insuppressible sneeze. The moment is handled brilliantly: “It is just part of the song. Don’t worry”. Nobody does worry because it is a lovely human moment amid deliveries that edge towards the earnest and the clinical. Tension dissipates. I hope the cut makes the live album but I suspect the quest for perfection will take precedence.

Becky Unthank. The Unthanks, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

Lead vocal on ‘I’m Weary from Lying Alone’ is taken by Niopha, the token non-Geordie, before moving into traditional songs about marriage and babies. All three singers gave birth in the past year and have brought their babies on tour, “So we had to learn some lullabies”. Each takes a turn on the lead vocal during the medley and if you close your eyes it is a struggle not to drift off.

An up tempo medley about bees rouses the audience. It is hard to believe that no one in the Hebden will admit to keeping bees. Perhaps they are just shy but shyness is not a problem when the trio bring an element of their weekend singing classes to the proceedings. The audience are divided into three sections and tutored into singing the words “sea coal” in respectively lower, middle and higher registers before the tapes are rolled. The final result is a valiant effort (it is much harder than you might think) but I suspect this version will not make the cut for the live album.

Niopha takes the lead on the gothic and ghostly ‘The Griesly Bride’ (an Australian tale about transmogrification of a bride into a dingo) before Rachel is left alone onstage to sing a favourite from her teenage years: ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’. On the surface it is a Victorian ballad, set on the north bank of the Tyne, about “singing to a bairn while bouncing it on your knee”. Rachel’s deeply affecting performance makes it so much more than that. Incidentally the tune was adapted for ‘The Liverpool Lullaby’ popularised by Cilla Black and Judy Collins.

Rachel Unthank. The Unthanks, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

All three are back on stage for ‘Poor Mum’, written by Molly Drake as a riposte to her son Nick’s ‘Poor Boy’. The jolly ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dik (“a little song we learned from our Dad”) and a take on the traditional children’s nursery rhyme ‘Magpie’ follow.

Tim Dalling joins to take the lead on the first encore… a passionate animated rendition of the gospel flavoured ‘Love Like a River’ with the girls providing Supreme-like backing vocals.

It could quite easily have been the closing number sending the audience out on a high. “That was a bit too much like fun, wryly remarks Rachel. “We’ll take it down a notch as we don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression”. So they finish with the ethereal haunting harmonies of ‘Caught in a Storm’ – ‘the wind the wind, the rain the rain; it seems the sun won’t shine again’. That’s the way to end an Unthanks show.

The Unthanks, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

The evening was a joy. The absence of instrumentation worked because the interplay of such fine voices was more than enough. It is a rare pleasure to be able to hear every word at a concert. The band do have a penchant for miserable songs but there is still room for one-liners: “Woman walks into a Gateshead hairdresser and asks ‘can I have a perm please?’. Hairdresser replies ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’”.

Tim Dalling was the amuse-bouche for the evening. A seasoned old pro in suit and tie he resembles King Crimson’s Robert Fripp albeit jollier, wittier and infinitely more ebullient. His bizarrely brilliant set encompassed stand-up comedy; tap dancing and some nifty accordion playing all topped by a powerfully rich voice.

Tim Dalling, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

‘Shy Bairns’ is delivered a capella with splendid audience participation. ‘Meeting Point’, based on a Louis MacNeice poem, is sombre and romantic.

‘The Hairy Wee Hole’, inspired by his Mother’s death, will not easily be forgotten by anyone who hears it. Pure end-of-the-pier music hall it is deeply anatomical and very funny but clearly not to all the audience’s taste. “You can’t sing that”, Tim gleefully grins, “but it turns out you can”.

Thanks to The Unthanks for bringing Tim to our attention. I haven’t a clue whether they will bring him along on their Autumn tour but I hope they do. He’s the perfect antidote.

The Unthanks, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge

Set Lists:

The Unthanks: Guard Your Man Weel; One By One; I’m Weary from Lying Alone; Sandgate/Hi Canny Man Medley; Rock a Bye Baby/Sleep Bonny Bairn/Irish Lullaby; Honey Bee/Bee Boy Song; The Griesly Bride; Sea Coal; The Sandgate Dandling Song; Poor Man; Where’ve Yer Bin Dik; Magpie; We Picked Apples In a Graveyard Freshly Mowed; Bread and Roses; Love Like A River; Caught In A Storm

Tim Dalling: Incredible, Miraculous; Eve’s Bonnie Squad; Mr Michael Marra/Welcome Back Shittypants; Shy Bairns; Meeting Point; The Hairy Wee Hole; Absent Friends

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