The Unthanks played the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on 20th March, the last date in an extensive UK tour to promote their eighth album "Mount The Air", which has been received ecstatically by fans and critics alike. The exquisite vocals of Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank are, of course, central to the band's unique sound but that sound is increasingly defined further by the bold and expansive musical arrangements of pianist Adrian McNally, which draw on influences as diverse as folk, jazz, chamber music, prog-rock and trip-hop. "Mount The Air" is the first Unthanks album to feature writing from all five core members of the band: the aforementioned trio plus Niopha Keegan (violin and fiddle) and Chris Price (guitars and bass).
The support was provided by The Young'uns, a three-man band from Stockton-on-Tees, who warmed the audience up nicely with their highly accomplished a capella singing and lively banter.This show was completely sold out and The Unthanks received a loud and enthusiastic welcome as they took to the stage. In order to recreate the sweeping soundscapes evident on "Mount The Air", the core line-up was augmented by a string quartet (including Niopha Keegan), trumpet/flugelhorn and drums/percussion.
The Unthanks opened the gig with three of the songs from their excellent new album. The piano-led "Madam" featured an earthy and bewitching lead vocal from Rachel Unthank, heady strings and a lilting fiddle solo. Becky Unthank's softly comforting vocals led on "Hawthorn", which was graced by some haunting trumpet and finished with jazzy interplay between trumpet and piano. Rachel's haunting lead vocal carried the delicate melody of "Last Lullaby", a song which also showcased the spellbinding close harmonies of Rachel and Becky to great effect and was overlaid with piano, trumpet and multi-layered strings to produce an exhilarating sound. 2007's Mercury Prize-nominated album "The Bairns" was represented by the hypnotic and quietly menacing "Felton Lonnin". This was given a heavier arrangement than on the album, with swirling strings and insistent foot-taps from Becky Unthank heightening the tension as the song unfolded.
Returning to the songs from the new album, thrumming harmonium paved the way for more beguiling vocal harmonies on "Magpie". Against a background of rippling electric piano and skittering percussion, Becky's suitably breathless vocals shone on the trippy new single, "Flutter" (which may well be influenced by the band's appreciation of Robert Wyatt's music). The first half of the show finished on a dizzying high, with a breathtaking performance of the epic, ten-minute long title track, "Mount The Air". This masterpiece of a song featured captivating individual and harmony vocals, soaring orchestral flourishes, uplifting piano, sparkling jazz trumpet worthy of Miles Davis and, during the steadily-building climax, added percussion courtesy of some killer clog-dancing from the Unthank sisters.
The second half began with covers of songs by Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt (both from The Unthanks' 2011 album, "Diversions, Volume 1"). Clog-dancing was used to good effect again in setting up the rhythm of "Lucky Gilchrist" and ushering in the staccato piano and strings and loping bass lines. This bittersweet song (a standout track from the 2009 album "Here's The Tender Coming") ended in a crescendo of swirling strings and trumpet. Niopha Keegan then took centre stage to deliver her graceful and moving fiddle air, "For Dad". Added poignancy was provided by extracts of a recorded conversation between the infant Niopha and her Dad from 1978. The set closed, appropriately, with "Last", the title track from their 2011 album. This mesmerising slow-burner, with its classy piano signature and hypnotic vocals, is, to me, pleasingly reminiscent of some of the slower 1970s Pink Floyd songs.
The Unthanks were delighted to return to the stage for the encore demanded by the audience's thunderous acclaim and they launched into an inventive reprise of "Mount The Air", which cleverly picked up the song from around three quarters of the way through, at the point where it begins to build to its towering climax…….cue more prodigious clog-dancing…….
The band took the tempo right down to round off a wonderful evening of music with a serene cover of the King Crimson classic, "Starless" , notable for a beautifully sad trumpet melody and an elegant, string-laden finish.
With the wondrous vocals and engaging personalities of Rachel and Becky Unthank and the excellence and diversity of the musical settings, The Unthanks have developed into an awe-inspiring live band. They are helping to keep traditional music alive, imbuing it with their own fresh, modern twist and a visionary musical palette. This is not soul music in the accepted sense but it is music to enrich the soul.
There are only so many hours in a day and only so many gigs we can get to. We'd really like to expand our national coverage of the live scene as it remains the life blood of music.
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