Review: The Unthanks, RNCM, Manchester
One of the many fine and fascinating things about The Unthanks is how they manage to fearlessly represent the very epitome of the folk tradition yet at the same time are so extraordinarily adventurous.
Their last album Mount The Air was one of the most remarkable records of recent years, not least for its melding of Miles-esque jazz with clog dancing. In parallel to their – for want of a better description – mainstream output, they’ve also released a series of Diversions which includes an exploration of the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a rearrangement of the band’s their own output with a brass band, and a celebration of Songs From The Shipyards. The just-released Diversions Vol. 4 provides the basis for their new How Wild The Wind Blows tour and finds them interpreting the songs and poems of Molly Drake.
The Unthanks believe that Molly’s private collection of home recordings, only recently unearthed and made public, “contains songs extraordinary enough to rank alongside and independently of the work of her revered son, Nick Drake”. That’s a slightly contentious assertion, of course, but what’s undeniable is that Molly’s songs do have an intrinsic value of their own, not least as (although they are accomplished and fully realised pieces of work) they were presumably never designed to be exposed to an audience. Thus, they have a bittersweet fragility and innocence that can’t help but prompt comparisons with her son’s output.
For the project (and there’s another Extras collection only available from the website or on the tour that includes two of Molly’s finest songs, Happiness and Night Is My Friend, as well as more of her poetry) they teamed up with Molly’s daughter and Nick’s sister – the celebrated actress Gabrielle Drake – and her pre-recorded performances of her mother’s poetry are at least as important to this tour as the always-stunning singing of Rachel and Becky Unthank, or the tasteful musical accompaniment of pianist and arranger Adrian McNally, the double-bass of Chris Price and the violin of Niopha Keegan, as well as tour newcomer Faye MacCalman on clarinet and tenor sax.
As with their Songs From The Shipyards tour, it’s presented as something of a multi-media experience, with Gabrielle’s readings accompanied by on-screen family pictures and a homely-looking set, decorated with the sort of chairs, flowers and standard lamps that you might well have found in the Cambridge living room where Molly’s husband Rodney recorded his wife singing. The unearthed original tape, which few in the RNCM would have already heard, I suspect – indeed the vast majority would not have heard any of the songs at all – is soon to be reissued and thus we’ll have a chance to compare the original versions with The Unthanks’ new arrangements, should we wish.
It might upset the band to hear this but I doubt I will be one of the ones doing so – the fragile magic of the songs as rendered by The Unthanks is enough to prove to me that Molly was indeed a notable talent. But would this show exist without the cult following that’s grown up around her son? Probably not, and they even included River Man, apparently the first Nick Drake song Becky ever heard right here in Manchester, as an encore. But that doesn’t mean that this is not a fascinating, meaningful and strangely moving show, well worth checking out live and definitely on record.
*** It could hardly be more different to the diligence and careful beauty of The Unthanks show by the sounds of it, but surely proving the enduring fascination for all things Nick Drake, The Lowry in Salford hosts a show on June 1 called Strange Face – Adventures With A Lost Nick Drake Recording. This recounts how an unknown version of Cello Song, one of Nick’s greatest works, was rescued by a former post boy at Island Records, who recently travelled the length and breadth of Britain with the aim of offering individuals he randomly stopped in the street, at their places of work or in their homes an exclusive opportunity to hear the recording.
For Unthanks tour details, click here
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.