19 March 2011
(taken from setlist.fm)
Queen of Hearts *
Lucky Gilchrist ***
The Gallowgate Lad *
Gan To The Kye *
accapella song about marriage and maidens
No One Knows I’m Gone *
Give Away Your Heart *
Great Northern River
Canny Hobbie Elliot *
Sad February ***
Close The Coalhouse Door *
Farewell Regality **
• songs from Last, the new album / ** songs from The Bairns (Rachel Unthanks & Winterset) / *** song from Here’s The tender Coming.
The first night of the tour, a tour that in the way of such things takes them from Exeter to Bexhill then back to Bristol. As has always been said, the best routes in the UK run north-south, so music tours run east-west. And back again.
The Exeter Phoenix is a black cube with minimal seating in a balcony for a lucky dozen or so pre-booked people. The rest are crushed standing on the base of the cube. More on this later. The support band were Trembling Bells, who received a 5-star review for their new album in The Sunday Times on the 20th March. I’d been told wonderful things about them in advance by people I trust. Was it first night nerves? Or fitting in a new drummer? They announced they were. Was it a joke? Because Alex Neilson, the drummer is the founder and co-songwriter and also an extremely highly-rated drummer. I subsequently found out that Alex Neilson had been replaced by his brother, Alistair because ‘he was away in Europe’ a curious way to begin a major tour two days before a potential breakthrough album came out (See review at egigs). Overall, they weren’t good. The drummer was seated extreme stage left (i.e. audience right). The drums were too loud in the mix, and emerged mainly from the PA speaker on the opposite side of the stage to the drummer, destroying the soundstage illusion. In a 350-capacity hall, you only need to lift the drums a little, not reposition them. The bass was woolly, the lead vocal mic piercingly treble. I’d nearly bought the new album (two days ahead of the shops) before the show. I was glad I hadn’t. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I feared that I was, but the review at egigs from someone more familiar with their music said:
It’s been noticeable with stuttering starts, and miss-cues that they’re missing their errant drummer (although the sibling’s work was terrific) to add cohesion on the night.
People were coming in all the way through the set. We were being pushed and jostled. People were appearing and standing right in front of us. We were feeling hot and pissed off. The songs didn’t cut through it. In the situation, I think they’d have to be familiar to do so. Oh, dear, I thought, the sound is dreadful in this hall, or black box, if you prefer.
Photo taken from the egigs review
But how wrong can you be? When The Unthanks came on after a 15 minute interval (why can’t other bands changeover that smoothly?) the sound was absolutely sublime. It was 30% quieter for a start, quiet being the “new loud” for concerts. The drums (which were the same kit in the same place) sounded just right, the bass was clear and undistorted. The vocal mics clear as a bell, capturing every nuance. When the Trembling Bells drummer joined them for a number, he sounded great too. The blame for bad sound in the support set lies somewhere. Sound crews are notoriously unsympathetic to support bands. As this was a brilliant sound crew for The Unthanks, maybe Trembling Bells just got the levels they had asked for at the sound check. And also the audience were all in when The Unthanks started, so the jostling and jockeying for a view had stopped. There’s something about The Unthanks that fixes people firmly to the spot paying total attention.
The Unthanks have been moving more and more eclectic, or rather ‘less traditional.’ The new album Last is the reason for the tour, and it’s getting the promotion. Every small HMV that I was in (four?) over the last week (I’ve never been known to pass a record shop) had the album at the front among major new releases. You can look at the new release racks and wonder which will survive the years. Last is the pimary candidate. It’s a classic album.
And it’s going to be a classic tour. The Unthanks are Rachel and Becky Unthank, and Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally on piano. The full Unthanks also consist of trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass (+ bass guitar, drums) and guitar (plus ukulele and drums). Becky adds clogs and high-heels to the percussion, a task the seven-month pregnant Rachel was banned from doing. The single trumpet (as on Blind Pilot’s gig last week) works so well. The three best shows I’ve seen in the last three years all had string sections: Brian Wilson, John Cale and The Unthanks. Yes, that’s where I rate them.
They’re magical. Listening to them is a meditation, and soon restored a mood of calmness and serenity. The between songs chat is easy and friendly, and funny. The folk roots are heavily diluted with songs from Tom Waits (No One Knows I’m Gone), Robert Wyatt (Cuckoo Madame), Jon Redfern (Give Away Your Heart) and the last song of the main set, King Crimson’s Starless.
They played most of the new album. Add in a song from a Robert Wyatt special they’d done, and over half their set was new to performance (and so very recent to established fans). There were only two songs from the previous set, Here’s The Tender Coming. That’s a bold move and one which paid off totally. Their ability to create a mood meant they could play whatever they liked, and the complex and subtle arrangements and orchestration of Last meant a somewhat different sound anyway which carries over to the older material.
The six minute Starless was a pleasant surprise. They apologised for taking on a prog song a little too much, but they did it so well that it was a perfect closer for the main set. King Crimson were different, and I went away thinking that there are two or three songs on the 1973/74 albums that would suit them as well.
Yet another word on venues …
Moaning about all-standing venues is bcoming a refrain. They’re horrible venues especially for women. If you’re under about five feet four, much of all standing gigs consists of staring at people’s backs and sniffing their armpits. The Phoenix Exeter added filthy toilets, perhaps to echo rock festivals, and a slow, creaky entry system with handstamps (why not just give over the whole building to the show?) In its favour, the sound and lighting for The Unthanks set was first rate, which suggests the hall has an inherently decent acoustic so that was probably why it was chosen. Looking at the tour, there are mainly seated venues, so we were unlucky.
There’s an argument about standing up and atmosphere which works for anything danceable, or very loud and dynamic. The toe-tapping excitement runs through the feet, and performers will often ask for standing. Van Morrison does it for the atmosphere. The Decemberists, I’m told, choose standing venues because increased capacity keeps ticket prices so low, and all-standing halls have fewer repairs, and an easier deal with fire regulations which assist this. Bob Dylan, playing very large venues, does it greedily to increase capacity, because the price remains the same. About four times the cost of The Unthanks or The Decemberists.
The Unthanks are quiet, serene, meditative, complex, stuff where you want to listen to the lyrics. I can’t think of a single advantage an all-standing venue gives. In the 60s, at folk clubs and festivals, people used to sit or lie on the ground for this sort of music. The music is soothing and relaxing and dreamlike. We don’t relax and follow musical reveries on our feet.
At some standing venues, like the O2 Bristol, or O2 Bournemouth, Brook Southampton, Forum London, Corn Exchange Cambridge, there is an escape route, an accessible balcony or gallery. Even where there are no chairs (O2 Bristol), there are railings to lean on. You can move up and back and see the band clearly. Not at The Phoenix, Exeter. It was crowded, hot and stuffy (and we felt very sorry for the pregnant Rachel Unthanks … it’s far worse on the stage under the lights). Over half the audience were “mature” (past the first flush of middle-aged?), so going out, we heard people complaining about knees, ankles, backache!