Live at Bradford St George’s Hall 24th October 2019
I’ve seen The Unthanks with a ten-piece band, as a three-piece acapella unit and now, tonight, we have the two sisters, Rachel and Becky, plus Adrian McNally on piano and occasional vocals. It is a sparse sound and fits well with the frequently stark material. The rapt audience are so quiet that, when the sisters step back from the microphones and sing unamplified for a short song, we can hear them clearly. It helps that we are in the newly refurbished and rather splendidly traditional Bradford St George’s Hall.
Tonight is billed as the Emily Bronte night, following their mini-album based on the Haworth writer’s words. As that is only half an hour long, there is another hour of chat and songs, often drawn from the companion pieces to the Bronte release. There is work from the music Adrian created for Maxine Peake’s Lillian Bilocca – A Whistling Woman and The Sea Is A Woman and they are lovely and affecting. There is material from their First World War suite, a song (War Film) about the sudden emotional pain of bathing a boy and realising he may grow up to suffer and die in a war. Most of the perspectives are women’s and give the lie to the hardship of fishing resting with men and that of war with men too. Adrian sings a gentle but harrowing tale from the trenches that is effective for its matter-of-factness. His piano (a Steinway that he tells us is over-sensitive, like a Ferrari) is just the right percussive illustration for the vocal work.
A highlight for me is the first Unthanks song I heard, the one that drew me to find out more, Cyril Tawney’s On A Monday Morning (“too soon to be out of me bed”). Mostly sung by Rachel, it is funny, sad and lovely. Elsewhere, Becky tends to take the lead and the contrast between the voices create beautiful harmony. We hear settings of Molly Drake poems, a fun acapella bit of fluff, a song about Patience Kershaw, the Halifax activist and some sardonic comments from Adrian. “We’ve done songs about shipyards, coal mining, World War One and obscure eighteenth century poetry. Yet The Unthanks are reputedly trying to commercialise folk music”, he says. And yet, this isn’t folk music as we know it; The Unthanks’ catalogue has become a progressing work of art as the sisters bring working lives and women’s lives into a historical and contemporary tapestry of human emotion. True, they tend to focus on the hardness of life, but it is often to show us where people shine in their response to adversity and their support for each other, brightness shining out from the edge of the clouds.
Tonight is a reminder, if it was needed, of the artistry and curation skills of this remarkable band, whether they manifest as a ten-piece or a three-piece.