More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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On Saturday 31 October, during their tenth-anniversary tour, The Unthanks made a stop at The Stables*, where they had been heard before, but probably just on one occasion. (Recollection is confused by also having seen A Very English Winter : The Unthanks at Aldeburgh Festival 2012, made for BBC Four.)
Their playing number from that incarnation (as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset) substantially remain : Rachel and Becky Unthank themselves, and Niopha Keegan, with Adrian McNally (then their producer) taking the place of their former pianist (Belinda O’Hooley), and with guitarist and bass-player Christopher Price completing the five-piece line-up.
First set :
1. Low Down in the Broom – Traditional (learnt from Nancy Kerr)
2. A sea shanty [‘One of the cleaner ones’] – Billy Rich
3. On a Monday Morning – Cyril Tawney [Cruel Sister]
4. I Wish - Traditional [The Bairns]
5. A Great Northern River – Graeme Miles [Diversions, Volume 3 : Songs from the Shipyards]
6. Mount the Air – Traditional [Mount the Air]
7. Annachie Gordon – Traditional (learnt from Nic Jones** ?) [Here's the Tender Coming]
8. Sea Song – Robert Wyatt [Diversions, Volume 1 : The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, Live from The Union Chapel, London]
9. The Gallowgate Lad – Joe Wilson [Last]
To start the gig, Rachel and Becky Unthank came onto the stage at The Stables (@StablesMK), without instruments except the duo of their voices, to sing (1) ‘Low Down in the Broom’ (which Becky had learnt from Nancy Kerr), followed by (2) a sea shanty.
They said that they wanted to remind themselves and us how they had begun as a pair of sisters, desiring a way to get into folk festivals free. This evening, when trying to start the first number, even they were surprised to be reliving having the giggles, several times – eventually, they controlled setting each other off, after Rachel had remarked that they found, back then, that stopping drinking wine before singing helps.
In the first of these a capella performances, The Unthanks were haltingly syllabic in how it was paced, with words carefully ‘placed’ in the air. They showed us that they were communicating, in strophic form, intense and heartfelt emotions, and, just hearing them, one was quickly reminded both of Rachel’s killer vocal timbre, and the ‘innerness’ of how their harmonies sound.
[On Thursday 10 December, when it came to the gig at The Union Chapel (@UnionChapelUK), it also began a capella (but they did not repeat the fit of giggling, of which there was no hint). Familiar with the format, one could seek to take in the space and look of the venue, with its feeling of inclusiveness from the fact that no one was very far from the stage.]
On hand-pumped harmonium (and with additional vocals), Niopha Keegan joined Rachel and Becky for (3) ‘On A Monday Morning’, and, when she opened with the lyrics, Rachel vocally embodied the feeling of devastating realization, and its rawness, in this song of the demands of ordinary working life. To it, Becky brought her own, smoky tone-colour in turn, and the treatment was exposed and hurt, maybe more so than on the first Winterset album Cruel Sister (which the band did not seem keen to acknowledge much afterwards).
Adrian McNally, no more wearing a dress than he did at the later gig [but there saying that he had never looked as masculine as when in one], came on for (4) ‘I Wish’. With a drone from the harmonium, and echoed by Becky’s voice, one had a strong sense of the devastation in Rachel’s voice, more so than on the album. Yet the piano part came across as a little too ‘arty-farty’ to be impressionistic (which was later explained by being told that Adrian was newly playing some of these numbers live), and the whispered words of doomed hope were too obvious to work well [and had greater effect at The Union Chapel].
With ‘A Great Northern River’, part of a project with Richard Fenwick at Tyneside Cinema, we welcomed Christopher Price, a multi-instrumentalist, and also described as ‘very cheerful’. (Originally from Barnsley, and now local, as a resident of Hitchin – with the inevitable comment that this attracted.) Becky’s voice was bright, but breathy, with Rachel’s sharper than it had been, and ‘longer’, and they were accompanied by gentle, inflected violin, and quiet guitar, the song ending with a little flourish from the latter. We were told that we would hear a five-minute version of (6) ‘Mount The Air’, in which Niopha gave us turns and inflections on violin, and, when Christopher came in on guitar, he used a plucked effect. The song was unknown as yet, and so such a very short vocal was unexpected (just eight lines in A Dorset Book of Folk Songs (1958)).
The number (7) ‘Annachie Gordon’ is taken from the third album (the first released as The Unthanks), and although it is said, of he of the song’s title, He’d entice any woman, it is more about Jeanie, and her unwilling marriage. Intensely and painfully so, but (wherever the song is recorded as dating to**) one cannot take its romantic representations of love and death literally, on the other hand. Thus there is a bitter contrast between ‘When she and her maidens / So merry should have been’, and Rachel, empty, with lines such as these, and our feeling bereft and aghast at what unfolds :
The day that Jeanie married
Was the day that Jeanie died
For no discernible reason (not at this remove, anyway - despite having consulted the original document, before transcription), the review-notes here mention ‘Man is the Baby’ (in connection with The Unthanks’ live recording, at The Union Chapel itself, of The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons). In fact, Becky quite clearly introduced (and, with a directness of tone, started the vocals to) something from the complementary part of that album, (8) ‘Sea Song’ by Robert Wyatt, stressing that, suggesting that she might sing it, Adrian had first introduced it to her. [She said so at both gigs, but, at The Union Chapel, was candid in admitting not then having appreciated the significance of the idea of covering the song.]
Both sisters were fully in their stride now [in both gigs, though one has forgotten, regarding The Union Chapel, which set it was in, or how many were then on stage – though, against this, an on-line set-list suggests that it was not played at all ?], but Rachel, in particular, brought rich yearning to the lyrics, which were overlaid on violin and harmonium. Later, there was what resembled a rumba bass-line from Christopher, who, when we went into an instrumental section, gave us a spooky, tapping bass-effect. At the end, the performance went up yet another notch, with the frankness and natural strength of Rachel’s voice.
In the first verse of (9) ‘The Gallowgate Lad’, there is the line Says she, quite dejected, I’s sad, and we heard the dejection feelingly extend to and with the held word ‘sad’, and the loss, because her Gallowgate lad*** has joined the militia. Forces of softly played violin, harmonium, bass and piano provided the accompaniment, until, with time, Niopha brought her line to fore, at first simple and free, then embellished. The rendition gave a real sense of desertion and desolation, and, at the end, the violin line came back in as a way of both acknowledging and departing from it.
More to come...
* The Stables (@StablesMK) is at Wavendon, on the western outskirts of Milton Keynes.
** It appears (according to Wikipedia®) that the ballad is not known to have a basis in history (the place-name Buchan is mentioned, however, which is in Aberdeenshire), and that the original lyrics first appeared in North Countrie Garland (Maidment, 1824) and Ancient Ballads and Songs, Volume 2 (Buchan, 1828).
Nic Jones recorded a version on his album The Noah’s Ark Trap (1977) (and so have various others, including Mary Black : for ease of comparison, the Wikipedia® web-page reports the text of the lyrics used in some of these versions).
*** Every stanza ends with a line that invokes him, with varying adjectives, e.g. My bonny bit Gallowgate lad.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)