The Octagon Theatre, Yeovil, Somerset
Tuesday 24th February 2015 19.30
Rachel Unthank- vocal
Becky Unthank- vocal
Adrian McNally – piano, vocal, harmonium
Niopha Keegan – violin, vocal
(names guessed from album sleeve –they were introduced by first names only)
Victoria Rule – trumpet, flugelhorn
Becca Spencer – viola
Kathleen Ord – violin
Nick Byrne – cello
Dan Rogers– double bass, bass guitar
Martin Douglas – drums, percussion, vocal
Tim Dalling – vocal, accordion
Hawthorn (Mount The Air)
Madam (Mount The Air)
Felton Lonnin (The Bairns)
Died For Love (Mount The Air)
Last Lullaby (Mount The Air)
Mount The Air (Mount The Air)
Teddy Bears’ Picnic
Gan To The Kye (Last)
For Dad (Mount The Air)
Magpie (Mount The Air)
Out of The Blue (Diversions Vol. 1)
Spiralling (Diversions Vol. 1)
Flutter (Mount The Air)
The Wind & The Rain
Lucky Gilchrist (Here’s The Tender Coming)
It’s been a long time. After seeing them five times in two years, it was November 2012 when we last saw them, doing Songs From The Shipyards in Southampton. The Unthanks have taken us to some interesting places … musically mainly, but also to venues we have never been to before, all of them excellent venues too. Here they were in Yeovil, a drive through the Dorset countryside and across the Somerset border. The Octagon has clear sightlines, good seats, an auditorium curved round the stage. A satisfying two course meal in the bistro for two was a mere £30 in total, including sparkling water and the best value £1.50 side salad I’ve seen in years. And the charming ushers wore DJs.
After three albums of “Diversions” (Diversions 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons; Diversions 2: The Unthanks with The Brighouse and Rastrick Band; Diversions 3: Songs From The Shipyards) we at last have a full “original album” in Mount The Air the first full album since Last. I’ve been playing it for two weeks and they’re further down the road of creating their own inimitable musical hybrid. Folk remains the basis, but since essaying King Crimson, Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt songs, the “prog” influence has grown, coupled with a jazz influence. Reviews have compared the 10 minute opening song and title track Mount The Air to Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain in the way an original short piece is extrapolated and changed and molded. As well as the main five piece, the album uses brass to ethereal and wonderful effect. Trumpet and flugelhorn additions are central to a folk album where what you remember after the voices are piano, trumpet and a classical string section. It’s a LONG way from The Wurzels and The Yetties, often advertised as folk in this area of England. There is not a 6-string instrument in sight.
It’s marvelous to see the full ten piece ensemble again, for starters it means they have trumpet, essential for their arrangement of King Crimson’s Starless. They also integrate the support, so that Tim Dalling did the first two songs of each set – this is a better way of arranging a set all round. They line up with Adrian McNally stage right on grand piano and harmonium, then Becky and Rachel, with the trumpet player Victoria Rule (rightly) at the front in line with them. The drums are in a Perspex cage extreme stage left, facing inward, the “traditional” pre-stereo mix position. It was where Levon Helm always sat with The Band, and basically you get much better overall sound when the drums are NOT in the middle bleeding into every microphone. The string section are in a semi circle behind, led by Niopha Keegan, with a further violin, viola and cello. Double bass / bass guitar is at the back, to the rear of the drummer. For some numbers, among them her own For Dad, Magpie and the acapella first encore The Wind & The Rain, Niopha joins the front row.
A key feature of the album is trumpet, played mainly on the album by Lizzie Jones, with Tom Arthurs playing (getting all those Miles Davis accolades) on Mount The Air. Our live trumpet player in Yeovil was announced simply as “Victoria” and she was brilliant all evening as well as being central to the concept.
(ADDITION: One of the most common search requests on this blog has been “Who is the trumpet player?” The Guardian review answered the question, and I’ve added her full name, Victoria Rule.)
Tim Dalling appeared in dark suit and tie, which is eccentric enough nowadays. He was an inspired warm up, a mix of stand up, novelty song, and poet, telling jokes, and playing accordion on his two songs Absent Friends and Hey, Burro which involves donkey noises and references to bladder cancer. This could be a first.
The Unthanks made a bold move for the first set, with five out of six songs from the new album. They’ve done this before. It works because the songs are accessible. When the CD arrived by post, I took it with three other CDs on a car journey, and simply played Mount The Air four times. They started with Hawthorn, spare, beautiful, and basically just Becky’s vocal, Adrian’s piano, and trumpet. It’s worked up from a Charles Causley poem. The rest of the ensemble were standing listening intently, as were we all. They followed with Madam, the second track on the album. It has that master and servant theme of so many traditional songs. Adrian McNally’s arrangement is transcendent.
They departed from the new one for Felton Lonnin from The Bairns by (as they then were) Rachel Unthanks and The Winterset. That was Rachel, Becky and Niopha, showing the core continuity. On that album, Adrian was the producer, not the pianist.
Died for Love was next, making me wonder for a moment if they were going to do the new album in sequence. But no, they moved to Last Lullaby. This song, my companion’s favourite of the album and evening, starts with the traditional words to Golden Slumbers, but then switches to words by Rachel Unthanks. Paul McCartney was inspired by the same ancient lullaby on Abbey Road, but this has a completely different melody. Adrian announced that it was Rachel’s first composition. May there be many more. Concertgoers arriving at the venue early could see Rachel and Adrian walking their small children in the lobby, so the inspiration is clear. It’s a magical interpretation of a beautiful melody.
Mount The Air closed the first set, and Adrian announced that they would not be playing Foundling, the other ten minute piece on the album as one ten minute piece was enough. We’d have been happy for as many ten minute pieces as they wanted to play. The song Mount the Air is based around a piece found in Dorset. To say that Mount the Air is based on a Dorset fragment of a folk song (as they do) is a bit like saying Dvorak’s New World Symphony is basically a Czech folk song. The Sketches from Spain comparison is apposite, as that takes a small theme from Concerto d’Aranjuez and extrapolates, but the way it shifts from piano to voices to string section and back, all bound together by that insistent trumpet refrain, gives it a very special effect. It’s the musical piece I’ve most enjoyed in a concert in years. Adrian and Becky extended the lyric, and the music, by Adrian, is a masterpiece. It was cleverly placed too, reminding the audience of the title track, for they had all four of them on the concession stand during the interval, and couldn’t move albums fast enough.
LINK to the official video of Mount The Air (which is an edited version)
Tim Dalling returned for a love song to his wife, Redheugh Bridge, which thematically reminded me of Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas. Then things got really weird with a frantic flat out version of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Yes, that one. It had a long wild recitation about his teddy bear accompanied by dramatic sound effects on the accordion before racing breakneck to the end. It was incredible and hugely unexpected!
The Unthanks opened with the first song that would be well-known to the average fan who hadn’t yet bought the new album, Gan to The Kye from Last. It’s a familiar and popular one from previous sets, and it was time to put something like that in.
We were back to the album for Niopha Keegan’s For Dad. She came up front, and it movingly begins with tape recordings of her and her dad at her earliest violin lessons as a little girl. She then played her exquisite violin tribute with just gentle harmonium from Adrian. Tape segments were used extensively in Songs From The Shipyards when we saw them in November 2012.
Magpie is probably the first song I’d play to demonstrate the album to someone, my initial favourite, and Niopha stayed up front with Becky and Rachel to sing it. It was written by Dave Dodds … Becky tells the story that inspired him to write it. The lyric is powerful. Living with a garden infested by magpies, the superstitions fascinate me. We once watched three magpies. A large hawk had taken a pigeon off our roof and was standing with one claw on the corpse. The three magpies circled it, taking it in turns to move forward suddenly. This dance went on for twenty-five minutes before the hawk had had enough and flew away abandoning its prey.
They switched to Diversions 1: The Songs of Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt for the next two. We saw that tour as well, and they weren’t the expected choices. Robert Wyatt’s Out of The Blue came first, followed by Antony & The Johnson’s Spiralling. When Rachel announced an Antony & The Johnson’s song my money was on You Are My Sister, which they did so well on record and live, with For Today I Am A Boy as the other potential one. Wrong on both.
Becky wrote Flutter from the new album, and sang it as expected … the slight flutter in the voices is after all their trademark.
They finished, as on the Last tour with Starless. There is a connection they probably never thought of, linking it to the first set closer, Mount the Air based on that Dorset fragment. Three of the Starless writers, Robert Fripp, Richard Palmer-James and John Wetton, started their careers in Dorset, and the first two were born there. It’s coincidental of course … I’m not suggesting any musical link hidden deep in the Dorset soil. Starless was one of the highlights of the Last tour, and hadn’t been in the five-piece Unthanks concerts, because it needs a trumpet in Adrian’s arrangement. Both long closers come from the same inspiration. What is fascinating is to see a King Crimson song performed devoid of guitar, bass and drums. The trumpet playing was sublime and there was an entrancing short viola interlude in there too. Sung by Becky. It was, as before, astonishing.
There were three. They opened with Rachel, Becky and Niopha, unaccompanied, on The Wind and The Rain which is close to the Gillian Welch / Dave Rawlings rewrite of Twa Sisters / Two Sisters, though having looked at the same ballad themselves on Cruel Sister I suspect there are considerable changes.
Lucky Gilchrist brought everybody back on, and demonstrated how hard a string quartet can rock. A rollicking, rousing flat-out version to raise the roof. We even got the clog dancing, for the second time in the evening.
Finally we got Last, another favourite, to take us back to the ethereal magic of Rachel and Becky’s voices, the central theme that brought us all here.
On Sunday we saw Farinelli & The King, (LINKED) one of the best plays of the last couple of years, and on Tuesday The Unthanks gave the best concert of the last couple of years, with easily the best stage sound. Farinelli & The King is the story of the 18th century castrato who sang for King Philip V of Spain. The arias were sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, and the story was how an exquisite singing voice healed the troubled mind. I thought of that in Last Lullaby. Of course, the connecting theme between the play and the concert is the healing power of music.