The Unthanks

Black TradeDiversions 3
Fareweel RegalityThe Bairns
For Today I Am A BoyDiversions 1
Gan To The KyeLast / Diversions 2
Here's The Tender ComingHere's The Tender Coming
Oak, Ash & ThornOak Ash Thorn
Queen Of HeartsLast
Tar Barrel In Dalevirtual single
You Are My SisterDiversions 1


Unthanks playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

I’ve seen The Unthanks live five times (four reviews below), and every time it has been a different set drawing from a wealth of material. It all started with seeing Tar Barrel In Dale on television, downloading the song (a virtual Christmas single) and then booking to see them on the Last Tour. That was the Saturday. We immediately got tickets to see them again a few days later.

The core of the group are Rachel and Becky Unthank with Adrian McNally, Rachel’s husband as their musical director (piano, drums), with Chris Price (guitar, bass, drums) and Niopha Keegan (violin). All five sing. I’ve seen them with larger string sections, and drums and trumpet, but the five are the centre. I guess when finances allow they expand. In their Intimate Evening tour all five got featured solo pieces.

The first two albums were labelled as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset, but I’m including them. Cruel Sister was 2005, and The Bairns came in 2007. Fareweel Regality from The Bairns has become a set closer for them. Troubled Waters from Cruel Sister shows them unaccompanied, and the unaccompanied spots are very special on albums and in concert.

The name changed to The Unthanks with the addition of Adrian McNally and Chris Price and the album Here’s The Tender Coming in 2009. By now the awards … Best Band, Best Live Act, Mercury Prize nominations … were falling thick and fast.

Last in 2011 reached the main Top 40, an astonishing feat for a traditional folk group, but this is no ordinary folk group. This is a group that can embrace the songs of Peter Bellamy and Ewan MacColl on one hand, or Tom Waits, Robert Wyatt and King Crimson on the other. Queen of Hearts is the centrepiece of the album for me, a traditional song previously recorded by Martin Carthy and by Joan Baez. The simple slightly quavering voices of Rachel and Becky make it the best version. The radical version of King Crimson’s Starless from their 1974 era showcases its haunting melody. It was the closing piece of the main set on the Last tour with the soaring trumpet part, and Becky singing lead. It hasn’t been on concerts since, presumably because they haven’t had trumpet or an enlarged string section. Last is one of those albums where every track is worthy of inclusion.

The Unthanks contributed to the Peter Bellamy tribute album, and took the title track, Oak, Ash & Thorn, which they also perform live.

Late in 2011, The Unthanks embarked on a brave series of three albums, all of which were at a tangent to their successes of the previous few years. They were entitled Diversions and numbered 1 to 3. Diversion 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons came first, and on tour they did just that, sticking to the album. I thought Antony & The Johnsons fitted their style particularly with You Are My Sister and For Today I Am A Boy working beautifully. The songs of Robert Wyatt are even more esoteric and I thought them less resonant. Sea Song stands out, but then they were doing this Wyatt song back on The Bairns album.

The next one, Diversions 2: The Unthanks With The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band was a live recording where they revisited their catalogue with a full brass band. Don’t expect the Floral Dance … the Brighouse and Rastrick here are vastly more subtle than that. I’m tempted by Gresford (The Miners Hymn) but what makes this instrumental so outstanding is the brass arrangements, and I can’t choose it as an Unthanks track without Rachel or Becky. They received fulsome reviews, but while I enjoyed the atmospheric playing on Fareweel Regality I prefer the earlier version, or the live versions. It is my favourite Unthanks song of all. Gan To The Kye stands up closely with the Last version. I’ll mention both.

Diversions 3: Songs From The Shipyards was the soundtrack to Richard Fenwick’s film on the history of shipbuilding. The tour performed the songs live while the film was projected. Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding has Adrian McNally singing with Rachel and Becky, and is another unexpected cover framed wonderfully. The prelude, The Romantic Tees has Adrian leading on piano with the recorded voice of George Unthank, himself a Northumbrian singer, and is such a beautiful piece, but again I need the female voices. Black Trade is the one I’d pick first.

Reading through the Toppermost list, I notice its leaning to the slower more dramatic aspects. I could choose more … Give Away Your Heart from Last nearly got in. That’s not all there is. On live shows they have plenty of numbers where Rachel and Becky put their clogs on and tap up a storm.


The Unthanks website

March 2011, Exeter: Last tour

December 2011, Portsmouth: Diversions 1 tour

April 2012: Eastleigh: Intimate Evening tour

October 2012: Southampton, Songs From The Shipyards

The Unthanks biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

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