Live Review: The Unthanks. St George’s, Bristol 1 May 2019

Gigs on consecutive nights! I think I’ve only done that once before, when I saw The Strypes at the Thekla on the night before a classical concert at St George’s – not the greatest of scheduling given how loud The Strypes were!

The contrast between Tuesday’s Tubular Bells for Two and Wednesday’s Unthanks show couldn’t be greater – something like 20 instruments on stage for TB, no instruments for The Unthanks. I think they had the smallest sound desk I’ve ever seen at a gig.

The support was interesting – it turned out that violinist Aidan O’Rourke had read the book 365 by James Robertson – the author had written 365 short stories, one a day for a year, and each story has exactly 365 words – and was inspired by this to try and write a piece of music every day for a year, each one inspired by that day’s story from the book. James Robertson told him not to be daft, but he did it and has so far recorded over 140 of the pieces.

The performance was just O’Rourke’s violin with accompaniment from Kit Downes’ harmonium – the only two instruments played in the whole evening, and neither of them were “electric”. So the only electrics used in the whole show were the microphones. And the music was rather lovely – folk-y but a bit contemporary, and quite listenable for someone like me who is fundamentally a fan of rock music.

And on to The Unthanks.
I’ve been aware of them for several years – mainly through their appearances on the Radcliffe and Maconie radio shows, where their version of Tar Barrel in Dale has become a Christmas regular.
I’ve been waiting for them to perform (and hopefully at St George’s) for quite a while – they did come to Bristol not so long back, but that was with an orchestra and I wanted to hear them unaccompanied. As it turns out, I might have been lucky as they do normally perform with a band, but this tour was just Rachel and Becky Unthank plus Niopha Keegan.

I did wonder whether I’d be able to take a whole show of acapella singing, especially as folk isn’t really my thing (even if they’re not really folk), but I really shouldn’t have worried – they were superb. A quiet, gentle, evening of quite spellbinding vocals.

I’m no expert on these things, but they don’t have “classical” singing voices – there are clear traces of their North-Eastern roots (although Niopha Keegan is a Londoner), and they have a particular timbre to them – but they work so well with the songs they sing (sometimes but not always traditional, and often with north-east links), and when they harmonise it’s quite beautiful.

I really couldn’t tell you what they sang (apart from Magpie, as featured in TV series The Detectorists), but I will tell you that it was beautiful and they are absolutely well worth going to see.

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