I was curious how The Unthanks' glorious new album Mount The Air would translate to a live experience, given its delicate intricacy. Having read that they were touring as a ten piece ensemble, minimalism was not the first theme that came to mind. Yet, the scene was set over the PA by the iconic 1976 piece Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. The repeated chords in Adrian McNally's piano accompaniment were reminiscent of minimalism at times, but more fundamental was the restraint in deploying the rich resources at their disposal. The support act though, was minimal only in the sense of eschewing instruments. The Young 'Uns' startling cover of Billy Bragg's Between The Wars immediately made it clear why this north eastern trio is attracting critical attention. The rest of last night's material, combining sea shanties, politically charged lyrics, and traditional melodies didn't quite reach that cover's level of musical inspiration, but their gentle humour created a warm rapport with the audience.
The Young 'Uns, singing a capella in perfect harmony, were an almost frenetic experience in comparison to The Unthanks. The pace of the main act was planned with precision, unfolding gradually from the subdued opening of Hawthorn to the full flowering of Mount The Air. This original title song from their new album reappeared before the final encore, like the reprisal of a theme in a classical symphony.Yet it was inspired by a Miles Davies song, and jazz freedom was apparent in the subtle trumpet playing of Victoria Rule, known for her work with Elbow. Adrian McNally stretched traditional songs into extended, exquisitely tasteful arrangements (with intuition, as apparently he can't read music). His British restraint gave space for extended structures: often the sisters would alternate their vocals between lengthy, sparse instrumental sections. The burst of light and grandeur when the full ensemble took the chorus then felt all the more rousing.
There was not only a wide dynamic range, but greater than expected variety of mood: despite the songs' prevailing air of melancholy, it felt far from depressing. Episodes of clog dancing by Rachel and Becky lightened the atmosphere, as did their warm dialogue with the audience, highlighting their connections with Manchester. Spontaneity operated within the pre-defined boundaries of taste however, as did audience participation in the form of the odd sing along (Michael Hughes of The Young 'Uns was the real master of choreography with his use of hand signals). Glitter ball aside, the not completely full ballroom venue didn't really enhance the atmosphere: a church would have been visually more apt. But, with such a subtle, note perfect performance, the surroundings did little to detract from the occasion and the sound was expertly balanced. In a week when social media is discussing Mumford and Sons' popularist move towards Coldplay's rock territory, such depth and serenity in folk music feels vital.
Northumberland folk is rooted in utterly gorgeous melody, but to this seed, Adrian McNally has drawn upon an eclectic range of influences, to the extent that Radiohead is said to be an admirer. The recent single Flutter looks to trip hop, but a highlight for me was the mournful Magpie, employing a simple drone bass in the cause of tender beauty. From the first of their Diversions Series, a song each by Robert Wyatt and Anthony and the Johnsons was performed, but I found the closing Last more affecting. But the opening act signposted the evening's other predominant theme, alongside the power of restraint: outstanding vocal ability. It is no coincidence that the Unthank sisters organise singing weekends: their voices are nuanced, subtle instruments combining technical accuracy with the most tender emotions. I envy those who've experienced them acoustically in a small space, but the sophistication and taste of this larger scale presentation perhaps surprisingly bought to mind a magical evening in 2011 on PJ Harvey's Let England Shake tour. Both groups transcend genres with outstanding musicianship, gorgeously judged arrangements, and are theatrical in the most subtle, unshowy sense.
- Mount The Air
- Last Lullaby
- Felton Lonin
- Died For Love
- For Dad
- Out Of The Blue (Robert Wyatt)
- Spiralling (Anthony and the Johnsons)
- Lucky Gilchrist
- Starless (King Crimson)
- Caught In A Storm
- Mount The Air (Reprise)