An Intimate Evening With The Unthanks
The Point, Eastleigh
18 April 2012
Rachel Unthank – vocal
Becky Unthank – vocal
Adrian McNally-piano, vocal, guitar
Christopher Price – guitar vocal
Niopha Keegan – violin, vocal
Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell
Hares On The Mountain
There’s A Disease
Down in Adairsville
The Romantic Time
(instrumental + recorded voice of George Unthanks)
Adrian McNally, Chris Price, Niopha Keegan
Unthanks Medley: Last / Gan To The Kye / Lucky Gilchrist
All In A Day (Alex Glasgow)
Oak, Ashes & Thorn (Pete Bellamy / Rudyard Kipling)
Instrumental (Chris Price)
Chris Price, Niopha Keegan
January Man (Dave Goulder)
Shores of Loch Bran
Niopha Keegan – solo
John Wayne Gacy Jnr. (Sufjan Stevens)
Adrian McNally – guitar, vocal
Birds (Neil Young)
Chris Price – vocal, with Becky & Niopha backing vocal
– Lucy Farrell (with Adrian, piano)
– Jonny Kearney
Rachel & Becky, unaccompanied
Testimony of Patience Kershaw (Frank Higgins)
Here’s The Tender Coming
Troubled Waters (Matt McGuinn)
This was my fourth Unthanks concert in a year and the second at The Point. They work hard. I didn’t review the last one at The Point because it was a week after Exeter, and so a similar set. The venue is a joy. Seated. comfortable, spacious, steeply raked with good sight lines, clean and comfortable public areas. The seats were unreserved, but we were right at the front of the line and had the choice. After two crowded standing ones, it’s so relaxing to sit back and watch in comfort with a clear view. The sound was as last time, impeccable, and they’re probably the quietest band I’ve seen.
The Unthanks are almost perversely uncommercial. This show repeated not a single song from Southsea in December, and only four songs from last Spring’s tour, and three of those were put into a medley. A manager bent on profit would have his or her head in their hands, muttering about Queen of Hearts and Fareweel Regality (neither played tonight). You have to think that repeating more of their most successful recent albums might see them in bigger and therefore more profitable venues, and therefore, dare I say, able to afford their full string section. Like last time, the show was completely sold out anyway. This is the core quintet show, and they make a virtue of it, stripping back to the basics. Chris Price on recent shows played bass, drums and guitar. This time it’s guitar only. There are no drums, no basses. Just Niopha Keegan on violin. In spite of the smaller line-up, the sound is as entrancing as ever. Maybe they simply wanted a more unadorned show for a change.
The first half flowed straight on from the support set and opened without the Unthanks sisters on stage. It was an instrumental from the Shipbuilding project they’re working on and which they discussed last year, and used the recorded voice of George Unthanks. Adrian had a Powerbook glitch with the recorded voice which he had to go off and sort out, but it all adds to the naturalness and humour. I guess the title is The Romantic Time as that’s the repeated line. The first vocal was Black Trade, again linked to the shipbuilding project. Unfamiliar, but I’d like to get familiar with it. Then came The Unthanks Medley … the best known songs Last, Gan To The Kye and Lucky Gilchrist. Then they went right back to their first album Cruel Sister from 2005 for Fair Rosamund, one of four songs from that album. Cruel Sister had the most exposure of the evening … January Man, John Dead, Troubled Waters. They did three from Here’s The Tender Coming, but only two from their best-selling and most recent Last. Maybe the early material felt right with the less elaborate quintet. All In A Day is another Alex Glasgow song. they like his material.
Certainly the second half is, as they said themselves, an evening at the folk club. They mentioned the 80s, but it took me back to the 60s … Dave Steel’s Folk Club in Bournemouth or The Troubadour in London. But this time I didn’t have to wear a heavy scratchy polo neck sweater nor sit next to people with cold pipes clenched in their mouths. But the mood of changing the focus, supporting whoever the focus was on, was the same. They don’t have all five on stage together until the last number, and the support duo Lucy Farrell and Jonny Kearney are used very well. Instead of the normal six song thirty minute support set, they do four, then come back in the second half for a song each. Actually that gives a support act a far better platform. Lucy did Peggy Gordon, an old favourite (especially done by The Dubliners) and Jonny Kearney’s Dixon Street has all the rich humour of a Victoria Wood song … you have to listen to the words throughout. Lovely intricate guitar part too. They’re an excellent support with a long Unthanks connection. It’s interesting to compare their so-English diffidence with the attack and swagger of The Civil Wars. They’re not going to go ‘stellar’ like The Civil Wars, but who is? And their songs are beautifully done.
Everyone gets a solo spot in the second half. Chris Price starts the second half with an instrumental which he says has the title of whatever he ate that night, this time being lamb and potatoes. He’s joined by Niopha Keegan, and Rachel & Becky on clog dancing. They stay on for January Man. Niopha Keegan sings the Irish ballad Shores of Loch Bran on her own. Adrian does the expected highly-unexpected cover … Sufjan Stevens’ song John Wayne Gacy Jnr (from Illinois ). It’s a song about mass murder, and actually, the song I most dislike on Illinois, but there you go. There’s a thematic connection to Simone Felice’s current song about the Sharon Tate murders. Another Felice connection is Neil Young’s Birds. Simi Stone sang it when we saw Simone Felice just a fortnight ago. Here Chris Price sang it accompanied by Becky and Niopha’s backing vocals.
On John Dead, Rachel & Becky were unaccompanied, and they deserted the mics, walked forward and just used the natural acoustic of the hall. That was a wonderful moment. You realise that even a carefully set up mic and PA are changing the sound. The next song, about a girl from Halifax in 1842, The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw was a highlight by Rachel and Becky. The last number before the encore was the first time in the second half (I think) with all five on stage, and was the title track, Here’s The Tender Coming. The encore, Troubled Water, had all five singing unaccompanied, again moving away from the microphones.
It was a carefully thought out evening, which had a concept, just as December’s show based on Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt had a concept. Next time around, hopefully, we’ll get the full Shipbuilding concept. They make brave choices, and they do a five star show every time. The size of The Point is perfect for the combination of intimacy, but comfort and clarity. A smaller club venue would add to the first, but detract from the last.