In a pop-rock world where the introduction of folk elements is seen as somewhat gimmicky and often contradicts the real origins of bands, there lies the true folk music subculture that continues to progress forward. And none is a better reflection of the genre’s current state than traditional Northumbrian folk group The Unthanks who continue to innovate with their newly released eighth studio album Mount The Air.
Growing from the all-female line up of original group Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, The Unthanks current line-up consists of Rachel and her younger sister Becky Unthank along with the group’s manager, pianist, producer and Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally. Rounding out the core band are McNally’s childhood friend Chris Price, replaced for his bass duties on this tour by Dan, and Niopha Keegan on the violin. Of course, it wouldn’t be a folk band without an extensive entourage of additional rotating musicians brought into the fold to round out the sound, so was the arrangement of musicians on Camden’s Roundhouse stage as The Unthanks came to London in support of their latest studio album following a four-year hiatus.
The set was seemingly split into two halves, the first featuring a selection of songs from Mount The Air, starting with the rather sombre Hawthorn and ending with a version of David Dodds’ haunting Magpie which draws on traditional counting rhymes. The second dove into older material including Unthanks’ versions of songs Out Of The Blue and Spiralling by Robert Wyatt and Anthony and the Johnsons respectively, previously released under their collection Diversions Vol. 1.
Of course things became lively quickly as epic title track Mount The Air, which reached 10 minutes in length and featured an enigmatic trumpet performance by touring trumpeter Victoria Rule, ended in a cacophony of sound accompanied by the Unthank sisters clog-dancing. Rachel jested that the song was probably the loudest thing The Unthanks had ever produced and that the audience were lucky it was only 10 minutes long as the original version came in at 16 minutes. At that point the clogs came off but were put back on for repeat performances throughout the night.
As is the case with much traditional folk music the songs have been passed down to today’s performers by musicians past or have been derived from poetry. But each song has a very specific story to tell and the Unthanks sisters, welcoming those new to traditional folk music into the fold, explained this derivation and history to the audience. An exception to this, perhaps, was the song written by younger sister Becky; Flutter.
Another diversion in the set had a recording of violinist Niopha Keegan speaking as a child on the prompting of her father being played to bookend the tune For Dad, a melancholy violin piece written by Keegan for her late father.
Throughout the evening the orchestration of the 10 musicians on stage was simply magical while the harmonies reached by The Unthanks sisters would give pause to anyone who would ordinarily dismiss traditional folk music. Given the quiet of the music produced by the collection of musicians on stage, it was difficult but to become enraptured in the atmosphere generated and the near pin drop silence reached at points by the 1500-strong Roundhouse crowd.
Photography & Review by Kalpesh Patel. The Unthanks @ The Roundhouse. March 7th 2015.
The full set here:http://images.rockshot.co.uk/#!/index/G0000cDsA_j7kAyU