The Unthanks bring their unaccompanied vocal tour to Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre and Getintothis’ Banjo falls for their charms.
The Unthanks could be regarded as something of an anomaly in the 21st Century. Their look, their music and their reason for singing all hark back to times long gone.
The play folk music, unironically and unapologetically. They do so with none of the novelty raggle-taggle dressing down of, say, Mumford & Sons or others who have used the instrumentation of folk to add faux-‘authenticity’ to their music. The Unthanks play folk because that is who they are and what they love.
The last time I saw The Unthanks live, they played a folk version of a King Crimson song and gave us a short but fairly usual bout of clog dancing. I’m willing to bet that this kind of thing doesn’t happen at other gigs, which in many ways is a great shame.
The Unthanks are based around sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, and on the current tour they are joined by Niopha Keegan to complete the vocal trio. The sisters come from a musical family and it is easy to imagine the family Unthank gathered round a fire singing harmonies into the night. There is a kind of closeness and tightness that comes naturally to them and it is not something that can be taught or thrust upon people. The Unthanks simply have it.
Support tonight comes from Tim Dalling, who puts us in mind of an old music hall performer. He happily admits that these are his roots and he provides us with some good old fashioned entertainment. This includes accordion ballads, dancing and a good old singalong. Dalling easily wins the crowd over and proves very spritely for a man of his age.
When he departs, the stage is set for The Unthanks. This doesn’t take long, as their equipment consists of just three microphones on stands. On their current tour, appropriately called Unaccompanied – As We Are, The Unthanks are performing their entire set acapella.
This is an incredibly brave move, to stand in front of a sold out audience and sing unaided by any instrumentation. Performers attempting this have nowhere to hide and must stand or fall on their talent.
Happily, this isn’t a problem for The Unthanks. Their voices are superb and their harmonies flawless. They do not possess superhuman vocal abilities, such as those owned by Lisa Gerrard, but this is part of their charm. There is a more girl-next-door, homespun feel to them that conjures up images of family-based musical evenings in an age gone by.
Each song is preceded by a toot on a pitch pipe and the three singers calibrating their vocal harmonies. As well as being necessary for the intricate nature of the harmonies they are singing, this is a charming ritual and one that provides an insight into how they might rehearse and work out their lines.
As soon as they start to sing, their voices intertwine beautifully and fill the room. There is a surprising amount of music in the air considering the lack of instruments, the three voices rendering such frills unnecessary.
Their microphone technique is perfect, with only the distance between their mouths and the mics determining the levels for each part of each vocal line, Some of the harmonies sound positively mediaeval, reminding us of songs from Thomas Tallis and the like. The scales and harmonies connect us to our cultural past and remind us where the roots of this kind of music may lie.
There is great emotion in their songs, especially when performed in this manner and the unaccompanied nature of their vocals lends itself well to storytelling. There is also a haunting quality to the way their voices come together, adding a tone of melancholy to their tales.
As an alternative to recording a new album The Unthanks are recording each of the shows from this tour and will then select recordings to form their next release, something that again speaks of their love of home crafted artefacts.
For all this retro charm, The Unthanks are no mere throwback, rather they are part of a desire to simplify and to reassert the human element in art and in life.
And when the results are this good it is hard not to want to join in with this ideal.
Photos by John MIddleton