The Unthanks have called their current tour “An Intimate Evening With The Unthanks” and the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, currently reconfigured for the summer in a “cabaret” seating pattern, was the perfect intimate venue for their heart rending, gentle, delicate and tender songs. It was like meeting them in person rather than seeing them on stage, especially as their grandma was in the audience and they took her tiny grandchild up to her seat to see her during the interval. Rachel and Becky were in great voice, harmonising beautifully together and the simple, nicely judged, pared down arrangements for the core quintet (Rachel and Becky plus Adrian McNally, Niopha Keegan, and Chris Price) showed off their tone beautifully. There was a haunting off mic accapella number which had the most perfect harmonies and the whole audience seemed to draw closer to listen. There is something very special about the way that two relaxed, self effacing and very much down to earth Geordie lasses can zero in on a song and take you to some very dark and lonely places. My favourite song of the evening was The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, that really is a song to break your heart. It is a traditional one, derived from a transcript of testimony gathered by the Ashley Mines Committee from a real young girl, 17-yr-old Patience Kershaw, in 1842. Rachel Unthank sang it with great conviction and it really brought out the best in her voice.
“I try to be respectable, but sir, the shame, God save my soul.
I work with naked, sweating men who curse and swear and hew the coal.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, kind Sir, not even God could know my pain.
I say my prayers, but what’s the use? Tomorrow will be just the same.”
There were also songs about the more recent shipbuilding industry which brought the tradition closer to our own times. The traditional clog dancing of Rachel and Becky added a percussive drive and rhythm to some of the songs which was a great addition to the pared down sound of the quintet, and it was also just great to watch. One of the greatest strengths of the Unthanks is their commitment to their own history and their own local area and it is moving to see how they celebrate the connection between the past and the present as the lives of working people continue to evolve. People never really change, we feel pain and joy and react to the vagaries of life now much as people have always done, and nothing brings this home like traditional folk music sung with heart and soul. It is always changing and developing in the hands of a new generation, but that unity of spirit with the people who sang these songs in the past is always there and the new generation of folk musicians treasure it as well as moving it forward. The Unthanks do this as well as anybody out there on the folk circuit today. The Unthanks also had solid support from Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell. Lucy sang the traditional Celtic song Peggy Gordon with real feeling in the second half with just a simple piano accompaniment. Really lovely.