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Review: The Unthanks' homecoming gig at Newcastle City Hall

The Unthanks' spellbinding harmonies win over their hometown crowd as they promote new album Mount the Air

****
Rachel and Becky Unthank
Rachel and Becky Unthank

“I have some notices for tonight… a bit like a parish council meeting,” says Rachel Unthank. She proceeds to do audience members’ birthdays as part of this good-natured and affectionate homecoming gig.

Unlike any parish meeting I ever attended as a young reporter, the band’s debut at the City Hall features the exquisite voices and nifty clog-dancing footwork of sisters Rachel and Becky (along with some very pretty dresses).

Stockton’s strident harmonisers The Young ’Uns open proceedings with Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars, “as relevant now as it was 30 years ago”.

Nominated for a Radio 2 Folk Award, the trio bring a robust levity (along with some toilet humour) to both halves of the show, matched by the lively banter of The Unthanks.

The sisters are touring their new album Mount the Air with an eight-piece band, including manager and pianist Adrian McNally (Rachel’s husband) and violinist Niopha Keegan, a long-time collaborator.

A string quartet, alongside bassist, drummer and superb trumpeter Victoria Rule, provide the brilliant musicianship required to carry off the lengthy instrumental passages featured on The Unthanks’ new tracks.

They open their set with an elegant interpretation of the bleak Hawthorn, by Charles Causley, and continue in melancholic spirit with Becky’s beautiful original tune, Flutter.

The soaring and swelling highpoints of this gig include the joyous title track of the album, based on a traditional song and developed by Becky and Adrian.

Also utterly beguiling is Last Lullaby, developed from the folk song Golden Slumbers by Rachel, now a mum of two boys.

Niopha’s tune For Dad, featuring her voice as a little girl, is haunting in its poignancy, but as ever it’s the Unthank dreamy harmonies which are spellbinding.

With quite a back catalogue to choose from, The Unthanks also present some of their Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt interpretations, completing the encore agreeably with 2011’s Last.

The Unthanks also play Middlesbrough Town Hall on March 19.

by Tamzin Mackie

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