Wedgwood Rooms, Southsea, Portsmouth
9th December 2011
The Unthanks recorded my favourite album of 2011, Last. I’ve seen them three times and they are the best band I’ve seen all year too. The winter tour is a bold move. After a successful year and a chart placing, they have devoted the tour entirely to the music of Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt. Their latest album, Diversions Pt 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons, was released with the tour, and features a live recording at the Union Chapel, Islington of a similar show a year ago to the exact day, December 9th 2010.
The songwriters concerned are delighted. The album sleeve quotes Antony Hegerty saying I am flattered and mystified. Their voices are so pure. Robert Wyatt goes further saying in the album ads that he would choose The Unthanks versions in preference to his own, if he had to go to the proverbial desert island.
The reason it’s a bold move is that as of 2011, The Unthanks have a higher profile than either Antony & The Johnsons or Robert Wyatt, and in both cases the songs are difficult to perform, and the word avant-garde fits them better than ‘progressive.’ I noticed that they did one of the Robert Wyatt songs at Exeter earlier in the year, but had dropped it by Eastleigh a few days later. Whatever the virtues, they’re not instantly catchy. Folk, it ain’t. You would think now was the time to consolidate success rather than branch out.
The odd thing was the choice of venue. At Exeter they had announced their intention of doing a set of songs about shipbuilding late in the year and touring it to maritime towns. That brings in Portsmouth (and Falmouth the next day). Perhaps they chose the venue with that intent in mind. They had never played Portsmouth before. The Wedgewood Rooms is a shabby black painted rectangle. When I was at school, we had the obligatory school history trip to Portchester Castle and HMS Victory, and Portsmouth was a shock to us. Every public toilet had graphic warnings about venereal disease posted on every vertical surface. The Wedgewood Rooms in 2011 was festooned with warnings about drugs which said the surfaces in the toilets were treated with materials to detect drugs and that miscreants would have their stash confiscated and be handed to the constabulary (it didn’t specify whether just the miscreants, or the miscreants and the confiscated items would be handed over). The warnings sat oddly with the pleasant, mainly middle-aged audience, as did the presence of seven or eight particularly beefy bouncers. At an Unthanks show, one retired lady to take the tickets should have been adequate “security.” Clearly the Wedgewood Rooms was unused to a band which included a string quartet on its stage, or to an audience of polite, pleasant, gentle folk fans.
The venue had placed rows of chairs around the back, but with standing in the middle, right in front of the chairs. This meant no one could see a thing from the seated areas. Other venues which share seated and standing areas have a raised area for seats. This one didn’t. It was a bizarre layout, as a gentleman with a crutch tried to point out to the bouncers (who were pleasant and polite in spite of their physical appearance). He wasn’t allowed to move a chair forward. The same happened with The Unthanks Exeter show which was all standing. It really does not suit the music. Their voices are a healing force, and at times you want to close your eyes and let them wash over you. You can’t do that standing. Standing’s great for a punk revival or a soul show, but totally wrong for this music. The Point at Eastleigh, a lovely modern seated hall was the correct environment for them. They should be playing arts centres and community theatres, not grungy discotheques.
Having said that, their sound balance was perfect in the room, every instrument perfectly placed, a lovely bass sound, strings sound, trumpet sound, soaring vocals. Not a point of criticism to be found anywhere.
As on the live album, the show divided into two halves with Antony & The Johnsons taking the first half. I was glad to be introduced to them, and the exquisite song You Are My Sister was one I could compare on YouTube with the original. What I didn’t understand is why on the live album and on the show, they were so afraid to admit to what they were doing. It’s sentimental, sweet and they do it superbly. But they have to distance themselves by saying You’ll need a puke bucket for this one and My boyfriend said it was disgusting. I do know a joke when I hear it, but there’s no shame in taking a lovely melody and lyric and doing it full justice. For Today I Am A Boy is another excellent song. Paddy’s Gone was particularly moving with the whole band lining up behind Rachel and Becky Unthanks to sing it. Antony & The Johnsons were a real discovery for me (I only knew their contributions to Dylan and Cohen compilations).
The Robert Wyatt material in the second half is possibly better known, and more varied in that the first half has a pretty continuous mood and pace and tone. You also get the break in style of Dondestan. On YouTube, someone has added: This is possibly the best performance I have ever soon of a clog dancing Palestinian protest song. Exactly. And who else would do a song accompanied by clogs, solo trumpet and handclaps? Totally joyous. They added an instrumental (I failed to catch the title) which had been missed off the December 2010 show because they thought it too difficult. They certainly pull it off perfectly now. Again, string quartet, double bass, piano, drums and trumpet. It’s a richly-varied set, but you can’t help recalling that Robert Wyatt called his compilation album His Greatest Misses and even his 1983 minor hit with Shipbuilding is hardly mainstream material. Wyatt has been prolific and most of it was new to me. When I can compare on iTunes or YouTube, The Unthanks versions lift every song. I’d also agree with reviewers that The Unthanks treatment works best on the Antony & The Johnsons material, partly because their voices suit it so well, the new arrangements by Adrian McNally add a dimension, and the melodies are stronger, or perhaps clearer, even if the lyrics require a pretty large sideways step at times. However, taking a lyric and performing it as written (Today I Am A Boy … one day I’ll be a beautiful woman) is a traditional folk virtue. Rock singers like Eric Burden had to shift the gender to fit in a song like House of The Rising Sun. A folk singer doesn’t do that.
The Unthanks are unique and unclassifiable. Last year someone said it was Avante-Folk. I’m not sure there’s that much folk now. Their instrumental line up is rich, and eleven musicians appear, but rarely all at the same time. Jonny Kearney plays most of the piano in the Antony & The Johnsons set, while Adrian McNally moves to drums. Everyone wondered why, but it struck me that no full-time drummer would show as much restraint and accent only when essential. In the Wyatt set, Chris Price shifts from electric bass to drums, and Adrian McNally goes back to piano. Trumpet is only used in the second half. Double bass for Wyatt. Electric bass for Antony. The string section plays some, but not all of the time.
This concert brought fresh material to my ears. I think it a beautiful and fascinating diversion, but I don’t think it necessarily a wise career move. The joy of The Unthanks is the heady mix of traditional folk, with unexpected modern material (such as King Crimson’s Starless). This was all in the unexpected material vein. I look forward to see what they have for us next year, but I hope for a better venue. You wouldn’t go to see The Kronos Quartet or Abdullah Ibrahim in a black-painted club more suited to thrash or drums ‘n’ bass records.