July 23, 2024

The Unthanks – unaccompanied and inspiring

Live at Leeds Left Bank 23rd May 2019

The Unthanks’ voices are a wonderful thing and tonight’s crowd sat in rapt awe. In the resonant acoustics of an old church, the harmonies acquired additional depths. The combination of the flat Northern vocals and close harmony work makes for a captivating ninety minutes and that may come as a surprise to some as they had no instrumental accompaniment at all.

The Unthanks never play it safe and their career is a list of projects – whether it is musical theatre, songs to a theme, collaborating, working with a brass band or digging up historical pieces. Tonight is not only a solo piece but two of the trio having one year-old babies, probably quite a challenge against sleep deprivation and reaching the stage with clean clothes. The Unthanks tonight are sisters Rachel and Becky plus Niopa, the newer member.

They worked their way through a dazzling mix of material. The lovely Weary From Sleeping Alone, Doo Wop stylings of Honey Bee, a grisly ghost story inspired by Australian bush ballads. Chat between songs is always good humoured and suggests a real enjoyment in performing. Babies are mentioned a couple of times and a small run of lullabies featured. The Sandgate Dandling Song is a highlight and one that turns up in different shapes in other places (even one of Cilla Black’s hits). Its fusion of pride, love and desperate sadness makes it perfect for The Unthanks. The very loveliest harmony work is with the well-known Magpie and the audience melts.

The encore sees the sparky music-hall figure of their support act join the trio for a gospel song. Tim Dalling helps it swing hard before we are quietly eased out with Underneath The Blackthorn Tree and it’s hypnotic “the wind, the wind, the rain the rain”. It has been an almost religious experience with an awe-struck audience and focussed attention on beautiful sounds and thoughts. Always different, always fascinating, The Unthanks are an act that carries the very best of the folk tradition into the twenty-first century, alive and relevant.

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