Amid the UK’s quietly thriving but often rather cosy folk scene, Northumbria’s The Unthanks have long stood out for their willingness to boldly blur the boundaries of genre. Over the past decade, they have interspersed their more conventional albums of traditional music with idiosyncratic interpretations of other artists’ work and imaginative collaborations. Released on record as the Diversions series, they have encompassed the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and The Johnsons, a poignant musical evocation of the vanished shipyards of their native north-east and performances with the Brighouse and Rastrick brass band.
Volume 4, released last week, sees the Unthank sisters and their band exploring the work of Molly Drake, mother of the legendary Nick Drake but also a fine songwriter and poet in her own right. A sold-out Milton Hall in London was the final date of their accompanying tour, entitled How Wild The Wind Blows, to bring their new project to their fan base and as usual, The Unthanks didn’t disappoint.
With a stage set featuring 1950s-style furniture and fittings, a screen montage of Molly Drake photographs and film and the group’s decision to wear period evening dress, the sense of time and place was captured with a delicate precision more common to the theatre than live music before a note was even played. Split into two 45-minute sets, the performances by The Unthanks – sometimes both sisters singing together, sometimes solo – were contrasted by readings of Molly Drake’s poems by her daughter Gabrielle, who also joined the group on stage at various points during the evening.
Originally recorded at home during the 1950s and early 60s by Molly’s husband Rodney on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, her fragile, intimate songs were never intended for public release, yet their wistful sadness is both a clear influence upon her son’s more famous work as well as being compelling in its own right. Expertly arranged by Unthanks’ musical director Adrian McNally, their haunting prettiness is ideally suited to the Unthank sisters’ gorgeous yet melancholy vocals. For all the excellence of McNally on piano and the other musicians – now including clarinettist Faye MacCalman as well as stalwarts Niopha Keegan (violin) and Chris Price (double bass) – it is Becky and Rachel Unthank who make this group truly special.
Whether singing alone or harmonising with almost eerie perfection, their voices’ highly distinctive timbres – Becky’s yearningly rich, Rachel’s more playful and quirky – set them apart. Both are on tremendous form here – Rachel peaks with the heart breaking Never Pine for an Old Love, while we have to wait until the encore for Becky’s sublime rendition of Nick Drake’s River Man, a rare demonstration of power and poise. Molly’s songs, while undeniably lovely and with some spine-tingling melodies, can feel slightly samey at times, so the more up-tempo, jazzy Soft-Shelled Crabs comes as a welcome change of pace.
The poems – brimming with images of the natural world and a sense of repressed emotion – are occasionally intriguing but unlikely to join the canon of twentieth century greats. Nevertheless, their inclusion, read by Gabrielle, lends an important authenticity to a study of an enigmatic artist who never expected to be the subject of such a tribute.
Throughout the evening, The Unthanks enjoy an easy banter with the audience (including devoted fan Martin Freeman), sharing jovial anecdotes on stage and chatting amiably while manning the merchandise stand at the interval. Their refreshing lack of pretention and clear love of performing are another key part of what makes them a special group, and with the How Wild The Wind Blows, they show once again that they’re one of Britain’s most vital live acts.