Over the past decade, Northumbrian folk royalty The Unthanks have built up an impressively deep and diverse body of work. Ever since emerging into the critical limelight as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset with 2007’s Mercury-nominated The Bairns, singing sisters Rachel and Becky and their band have rarely stood still. As well as their richly characterful interpretations of the traditional songs of their native North-East, they’ve also idiosyncratically covered the songs of other artists, notably Robert Wyatt and Antony And The Johnsons and Nick Drake’s poet mother Molly.
Along the way, The Unthanks have always been very open to collaborating with other musicians – notably the Brighouse and Rastrick brass band, live and on Volume 2 of their Diversions series – so perhaps it was only a matter of time before they gave their back catalogue the full orchestral treatment. At the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday evening, the band were joined on stage by chamber orchestra Army of Generals, conducted by Charles Hazlewood and comprising some of the world’s leading players of eighteenth and nineteenth century period instruments, including several musicians with disabilities.
While the Unthanks’ sound has always been suffused with instrumental colour – notably Niopha Keegan’s fiddle and producer/arranger Adrian McNally’s piano – the central element has always been Rachel and Becky’s very different yet almost eerily compatible voices. Throughout their career, the band have generally favoured relatively sparse arrangements to allow those wonderful vocals to come into their own. With a full orchestra to contend with, there was always a risk they could be swallowed up and this performance did bear out that concern to some extent.
It all started promisingly with an Unthanks classic – the haunting Gan To The Kye, which was given a whole new dimension by a ghostly male choral backing that fitted the song perfectly. Mount the Air, the title track from the group’s most abstract, experimental album, also benefited from additional brass to supplement the original’s soaring trumpet. Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk, another of their finest moments, featured jazzy inflections, wisps of flute and cinematic strings.
Other performances fared less well – either unfamiliar new material like Song For Syria, weaker older songs like Lucky Gilchrist or The Foundling, or questionable choices like Lal Waterson’s At First She Starts which, while beautifully sung by Becky, is arguably too fragile, intense a composition for this kind of beefed up musical exercise, and Flutter, which was divested of much of its Portishead-like wounded elegance.
Even so, there was much to enjoy from a cast of performers approaching the evening with obvious enthusiasm. The Army Of Generals, conducted with flair and energy by the flamboyantly-suited Charles Hazlewood, are a chamber orchestra of rich invention, recalling film soundtracks as well as the crepuscular dynamic of Tindersticks – notably on an excellent The Bairns.
The Unthank sisters themselves, though perhaps less of the focal point than usual, were still in customarily effervescent form, leading an audience singalong on the rousing The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerry and relishing several opportunities to showcase their nimble clog dancing skills. It all reached a crescendo with the closing King Crimson cover Starless and a stirring Mount The Air reprise. Not The Unthanks at their very best perhaps, but still an interesting, worthwhile adventure from these uniquely talented artists.