The Unthanks rolled into town with half their number but a big reputation preceding them.
Short-handed or no, The Unthanks deserve their rep as “the next big thing” in folk music, even though the band, named after Unthank singing sisters Rachel and Becky, have been around for over a decade.
With a five-piece line up including the sisters, Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally on Steinway, Niopha Keegan on various instruments and Cristopher Price on guitar, The Unthanks, normally 10-strong, nonetheless produced some beguiling and very clever music, playing a varied set that was a breath of folky fresh air compared to the hybrid gruel that has become the norm for many folk outfits.
After some warm-up chat The Unthanks first song was a slow but humourous number dedicated to the undeniable evil that is Monday morning and the regret that the weekend brings, or more likely, that is not continuing into the week.
After that whimsical flirt with pedestrian reality The Unthanks moved onto entirely different territory with their second song, and the finest piece of the night, the haunting I Wish, off their 2007 album The Bairns. Punctuated by McNally’s minor chords and backed by Keegan on the unusual Indian harmonium, which produces a bag-pipey, old-worldy drone, the song had a building and beautiful power.
If that early highlight suggests later disappointment, it did not come, as The Unthanks continued to perform a succession of diverse and pleasing songs interspersed with the odd instrumental.
McNally underpins the whole performance with some powerful piano, while Keegan interspersed her harmonium with more familiar fiddle work. But at the chore of it all are the distinctive voices of the two sisters, Becky the more breathy of the two and Rachel the more precise.
The next song, The Romantic Tees, started with a bit of recorded poetry and was the first of two water-themed numbers from Songs From The Shipyards. The band returned throughout the set to the fog and grit of the Tyne, its shipbuilding heritage and the First World War.
The next song was a return to traditional folk song terrain with the child ballad Annachie Gordon and again The Unthanks hit top form with this very old song that was transplanted from North-east Scotland to North-east England sometime in the early nineteenth century.
Magpie saw the Unthanks visit old ground again with the song, lyrically based on an old nursery rhyme, once more hitting the spot with its vapours of forlorn love.
They finished off the first half of their set with another fine old song – and their favourite of the moment – The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry – which they thought might be from Orkney, or possibly Shetland.
The Unthanks from time to time rub musical cheeks with the like sof Sting and Damon Albarn, but as you’d expect from two lasses from Gateshead they come across as pretty down to earth with an easy line in self-deprecating charm and chat.
Part two of the set kicked off with a number about Newcastle that sounded like it had been written for a Geordie musical, and was probably the weakest song in the performance. That was followed by the mournful The Gallogate Lad, with Rachel taking a turn on the harmonium and Keegan on fiddle.
The next song had McNally on vocals as well as piano and he was joined by Becky. This was followed by another song about shipbuilding featuring Rachel and Price.
The Unthanks then sang another version of I Wish, this time with Becky on lead vocals. She revealed the song made her “pretty sad”, but McNally countered that it had nothing on what was to follow and with two songs about The First World War called Socks and War Film, he was probably right.
The sisters managed to shoe in a bit of Northumbrian clog dancing in their final song, which they carried off with great skill, before returning for an encore with Here’s the Tender Coming, another somber old Northumbrian number sung with great tenderness.