They may joke that the only reason people come to their shows is for the clog dancing, but judging by the reaction of a fascinated London crowd this evening they might not be that far off the mark. So popular has it been that they have even had to work more into the set says Rachel, which is great news for an ensemble who are as much about keeping old traditions alive as making great music.
True to this ethos the Unthank sisters and their eight piece accompaniment begin with their take on the Graeme Miles song Sad February. Written about a shipwreck disaster off the coast of Redcar on Teeside, it is the first of several tracks from Here’s The Tender Coming which was released in September. The album marks a real turning point for the Unthank sisters and the permanency of their musical partnership. Previously releasing two albums under the name Rachel Unthank And The Winterset they have made a clear statement about younger sibling Becky’s place in the band as well as their musical intentions.
This seems to have been echoed in tonight’s performance as she takes on several solo’s, including At First She Starts and River Man from their first album Cruel Sister, which incidentally was re-released this week after 18 months out of production. It is however their duets which undoubtedly win them the most adulation from the audience and the interplay between Rachel, Becky and violinist Niopha is exquisite all night. With this in mind they step out onto the front of the stage to perform an a cappella duet of an old shanty song, making the most of the wonderful Union Chapel acoustics and showcasing the purity and strength of their vocals.
Rachel may joke about tragic love tales but in reality they seem to have achieved an equilibrium between severe circumstances and joviality which mimics the lives they sing about. No song seems to better demonstrate this than The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw which is a highlight of both the album and tonight’s set. Whilst lyrically rooted in folk the accompaniment seems to diversify, creating a sound which is unlike anything or anyone else and is fearless of genre boundaries. This really is the crux of what makes The Unthanks so special on stage. Although the clogs are brought out periodically to the anticipated delight of the audience who join in the singing as they round off the set with Blue’s Gaen Oot O’The Fashionand, it is the forging of old and new traditions which they do so effortlessly that will ensure their continued success.
Photograph by Tarn Lake