The Unthanks – Union Chapel, London – 9 December 2010

Ten great gigs from 2010: #10 (written for The Yorker)

Antony Hegarty.

Away from the folk scene, Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank are best known as the token (albeit deserving) folk nominees at 2008’s Mercury Prize. Setting aside their usual folk repertoire, their two-night stint at the Union Chapel – billed as The Unthanks Explore and Perform the Music of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons – was an early Christmas treat.

On paper, the now 10-piece Unthanks have a lot in common with Antony Hegarty, to whose music the first half of the show was dedicated. His status as one of their favourite musicians is perfectly understandable: both have endeared themselves to the public by way of distinctive vocals atop sparse chamber arrangements. Unsurprisingly, his songs slotted into their style naturally.

Despite sustaining rather than adding to the general feel of Hegarty’s dignified compositions, the ensemble was pristine and the short set rarely bordered on soporific. Most memorable was their quietly moving, seven-voice close harmony version of b-side ‘Paddy’s Gone’. A later duet, obvious choice ‘You Are My Sister’, watchfully toed the line between honest sweetness and vomit-inducing saccharine (pianist Adrian McNally had predicted the latter).

Robert Wyatt in 2006. Photo © Helen Dornellas.

Unquestionably, though, the real fruits of the night’s exploration were saved until after the interval, when they turned to the free jazz legend and lefty activist Robert Wyatt. In addition to their cover of his unique love song ‘Sea Song’ (already one of their finest album tracks to date), they shed new light on songs about concentration camps, Palestinian independence, bombing, determinism, and – in a very Wyattish tangent – what it’s like to be a piece of bacon.

Taking to the stage, they divulged that Wyatt himself had recommended a song for them to cover – ‘Cuckoo Madame’ – which had turned out to be the hardest of his oeuvre to perform. Stripped down for piano and strings, their attempt was brave but a little nervous. Much more comfortable was the similarly reduced ‘Lullaby for Hamza’, whose fragile, melodic verses and stately trumpet solo could have been written for the Unthanks. Similarly outstanding, Becky’s solo take on ‘Free Will and Testament’ and the stilling closer ‘Forest’ were also simply arranged.

Some songs were overhauled beyond the Unthank house style. Perhaps more could have been done with ‘Out of the Blue’, but its experimental rhythmic string orchestration was impressive. In ‘Dondestan’, the string players downed bows to sing pro-Palestine slogans while the sisters stepped onto boards for a wild clog dance.

In an even stranger development, and representing a thematic juxtaposition just about ridiculous enough to encapsulate Wyatt’s complex character, a jaunty ukulele translation of the silly ‘Soup Song’ followed. Its impact epitomised the night’s greatest success – audience members and performers alike had enjoyed an intriguing, original perspective on one of pop’s true mavericks.

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