With their distinctive Northumbrian dialect, haunting vocals andinventive arrangements, The Unthanks have spent the last few yearsvying with Bellowhead for the unofficial title of Britain’smost compelling and charismatic folk act. Over four excellent albums,including the Mercury-nominated The Bairns, they have successfullymixed their own unique interpretations of the traditional music oftheir native North-East with covers of more contemporary artists, andfor their new live show, they’ve joined forces with the worldchampions of another undoubted bastion of northern England’s musicalheritage – the brass band.
Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band – with their aforementioned trophyproudly on show on stage – have also achieved something the Unthankscan only dream of by having a Number 2 single in the national charts(1977’s The Floral Dance, which was only kept off the top spot by theformidable Mull Of Kintyre). But at the Barbican on Saturday nightthey were very much in a supporting role to the delightful Unthanksisters and their gifted producer/pianist Adrian McNally, whore-arranged some of the group’s best-loved songs especially for thistour in partnership with Brighouse & Rastrick’s Resident Conductor,Sandy Smith.
In theory, the rather solemn timbre of a brass band should make asuitable bedfellow for The Unthanks’ own bleakly beautiful music, butthe dynamic isn’t always a completely satisfying one. On the positiveside, the performances are impeccable throughout, and the brassarrangements on the whole subtle and complementary, mostly avoidingthe obvious risk of drowning out their more delicate partners with arelentless barrage of honking and parping. Some songs sound just asgood as the more familiar versions – for example the wonderful BlueBleezing Blind Drunk, where woozy horns and a tinklingxylophone/glockenspiel duet offer an evocative accompaniment to therumbustious but maudlin lyrics.
At other times though, there’s a sense that with the Unthanks lessis more. On record, the sparse atmospherics of their sound – oftenjust piano and a lone violin – create the ideal backdrop for the talesof woe and sorrow that form the core subject matter of most of theirsongs. Even with Brighouse & Rastrick in commendably understatedmode, on favourites like Newcastle Lullaby and Fareweel Regality theycan’t quite emulate that spectral, otherworldly ambience.
One thing that the Barbican concert does prove is that contrary totheir self-acknowledged reputation as “miserable buggers”, TheUnthanks do know how to enjoy themselves from time to time. As well asentertaining the crowd with their down to earth banter in betweensongs, we are also treated to an extraordinary big band styleperformance of The Queen Of Hearts, with multi-instrumentalist ChrisPrice delivering an exuberant Sinatra impression. Violinist NiophaKeegan is given a rare chance to front the group on the Irish folksong Lagan Love, and also we get to hear Brighouse & Rastrick on theirown for a couple of numbers plus a performance of a McNally-composedpiano/spoken word suite.
Yet for all the new ideas on show, the undoubted highlight of theevening is the central element – the spellbinding vocals of theUnthank sisters themselves. Their voices are appreciably different –Becky’s is purer and more powerful, Rachel’s more playful andexpressive – but when combined on songs like Nobody Knew She WasThere, they effectively become one seamless entity, such is thespine-tingling perfection of their harmonising. Although thecollaboration with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band doesn’t quitesee The Unthanks at the very top of their game, it’s neverthelessstill a rare privilege to be in the presence a group who are at theabsolute pinnacle of what they do.