The Unthanks | live music review

Union Chapel, London

Near the middle of their set, Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank step away from their microphones to sing unamplified, taking advantage of the airy acoustics of the semi-sacred space of north London's Union Chapel. The tune is "John Dead", a sea song "collected" – as they say in folk circles – from St Vincent in the Windward Isles. It was handed down to the Unthanks by shanty singers the Keelers, who count Rachel and Becky's father, George, in their number.

You can hear the wood of the pews creak as the sisters weave their unadorned voices around this whaling song of bravery and cowardice, glancing at each other to modulate their timings, virtually whispering in parts. It is so quiet that turning the page of a notebook would be an act of defilement. The cheering and stamping afterwards rings out like thunder. It's a prelapsarian moment; when the equipment is switched back on, your ears are almost assaulted by electricity.

The wide church of traditional music is currently enjoying one of its periodic pop revivals, with bands such as Mumford and Sons and singer-songwriters such as Laura Marling drawing particularly successfully on English song. But the Unthanks are a stranger and more shivery proposition, one of the most emotionally scuppering acts currently marrying words to music. The close harmonies of Rachel and Becky are the starting point in this extraordinary band. The Unthanks are just as devoted to musical atmospheres as they are to unadorned folk storytelling – one reason why, perhaps, in 2008 they came close to being the first folk band to win the Mercury music prize when their second album, The Bairns, finished runner-up to Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid.

Sporting a chic grey and pink 1940s vintage dress tonight, Rachel's voice is raw, taut and direct, suited to bearing witness to maidens, sailors and widows long dead. Her "Testimony of Patience Kershaw" tells the tale of a 19th-century female miner aghast at her muscular legs and bald patch; "her back near breaks" as she pushes cars full of coal.

By contrast, Becky's scuffed voice is like a haunting mist; she hovers more than she sings, taking at least half of the lead vocals. The band's evolution from Rachel Unthank and the Winterset to the Unthanks occurred, in part, to give Becky equal billing, but it also brings producer-cum-manager (and Rachel's partner) Adrian McNally into the fold on piano.

He's been called their svengali, but his contributions tonight feel entirely convivial. Still, the Unthanks story harbours hints of the compelling internal psychodramas that recall folk spoof comedy A Mighty Wind. They've certainly had a high staff turnover. One key Winterset songwriting member, Belinda O'Hooley, left in less than amicable circumstances between The Bairns and last September's Here's the Tender Coming. But they still perform her song "Blackbird" at the end, injecting a ray of light into all the untimely death, star-crossed love and grief that fills their repertoire.

Now the Unthanks have swollen to 10 onstage, incorporating drums, bass and guitar as well as strings and brass. The big band approach is new, but it suits the group's increasingly expansive music. Tonight's opener, "Sad February", mourns drowned Teesside sailors not only with words, but with aching horns, McNally's unobtrusive piano and a raft of minor instruments that swell to a racked instrumental sob. An objective passerby might call it jazz.

It happens again on "Felton Lonnin". Sung by Rachel, the song frets for a lost child. The violins and cello grow darker and more severe as the search goes on.

The Unthanks make it their business to revive traditional songs with a visionary approach, cutting and shutting tunes together, adding revisions of their own, and hovering near the avant garde at times. A song such as the devastating "Twenty Long Weeks" clangs with classic folk idiom grief at the death of a child. But its hammer-like minor-key repetitions ("Twenty long weeks, twenty looooooong weeks …") could just about withstand comparison with minimalist composers such as Steve Reich.

Their appeal is broadened too by a love of the songbooks of English left-fielders such as Robert Wyatt and Nick Drake. They perform a nuanced and eloquent cover of Wyatt's "Sea Song" tonight, voices and instruments saturating the air with sound, in stark contrast to the a cappella just one song earlier. Nervously, Becky sings Drake's "River Man" solo, her voice like vapour.

Between songs, they josh with all the wit of Lauren Laverne, probably the nation's best-known young female Geordie. And then there's the sisters' sporadic clog-dancing, testament to a childhood spent at folk festivals. Tonight, their flying feet function as a rhythmic device, and as light relief from the emotional aches their music can conjure. Their rhythms are, of course, drowned out by the noise of the audience's feet stamping in return.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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