Monday, March 09, 2009
THE TOFF IN TOWN
“Unthank was the surname given to those who would move onto crown land and claim it as their own, much like squatters,” explains Rachel Unthank mid-way through her band’s set tonight. In the manner of her ancestors Rachel and her sister Becky take traditional songs of their local area (northeast England), and make them their own. Not content with this, their set tonight also features dazzling covers of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song (one Wyatt himself admits is superior to his own) and the rarely covered (because his songs are so damn complex) Nick Drake with Becky’s achingly stark take on River Man. As becomes apparent early on, this is not music for everyone. If the idea of a young woman in a plain smock dress singing Olde English songs about Ma Bonny Lad, clog-dancing and resurrecting in dead languages like Norn and Ancient English doesn’t sound like a hyperlink worth clicking on then stick with the Pushover Festival and Golden Plains sideshows because these girls (seemingly the youngest people in the room) are bringing something entirely different.
Opening with the vertigo-inducing dissonance of the spiralling lament I Wish, the room is rendered as silent as an empty moor before Rachel then Becky take a verse of Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk, another song whose power is in simplicity, repetition and foregrounding their startling familial harmonies. An insight this far back into the roots of popular song is a rare gift, particularly when given by some of the very few people able to sing these songs with the authority they would once have commanded, accentuated by the lightness of their personalities between songs.
Taking most of the set from last year’s Mercury Music Prize nominated album The Bairns it’s the effortless authenticity and the joy that is evident every minute the girls are on stage (Beck and Rachel are joined by pianist Steph Conner and violinist and accordion player Niopha Keegan). Even when stellar four-part harmonies are delivered with a dour netballer’s sincerity, as on the gorgeous Blackbird and Whitehorn both written by recently departed pianist Belinda O’Hooley, the melodies are primal and spirited.
The synchronised rhythmic clog dancing of Blue’s Gaen Oot O’The Fashion (I’m not making these titles up) is at once hilarious and brilliant. It’s all such a peerless display of honesty and ancient melodies that to be invited to their hearth is an offer impossible to refuse. If only there were enough room to write about how amazing Laura Jean’s support set was. Brilliant.