Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Mon 26 Oct 2009
Mum, Dad, I’m running away to join the folk band. This is the only proper response to attending a gig by The Unthanks.
Sadly, we don’t all have the talent of Rachel and Becky Unthank, and they probably wouldn’t have us. Nevertheless, it's nice to imagine they might welcome you into the loving bosom of their 10-piece folk collective and let you be part not only of the sublime music they make, but also of the huge amount of fun they seem to have in doing so.
The musical talents on show here are too numerous to mention, but at the centre of it all are the voices. This show is a powerful affirmation of the voice as an instrument. The sisters both have stunning voices, but it's working together that they are at their very best, the sheer perfection of their harmonies suggesting a togetherness only sisters could have. While Becky’s softer, more soulful voice pours its honeyed and yet mournful tones into your ears, Rachel’s chimes through with its sharper edge, and the combination is an awkward kind of bliss.
It's that mix of sweetness and bitterness, soft and harsh, intimacy and distance that makes this music so rich and compelling, so impossible to tire of. These are, for the most part, traditional folk songs, suffused with the traditions of the past, yet sounding effortlessly contemporary and immediate in the hands of The Unthanks. As pioneers of 'glamfolk', they've even incorporated a high-heeled take on traditional Northumbrian clog dancing into their records and live show.
Everything feels seamlessly in place: from the dark staccato pop of 'Lucky Gilchrist', a modern urban tale of a Glaswegian chancer who died too young, to the a capella harmonising of 'Where've Yer Bin Dick', a bawdy Lancashire rhyme learnt, like so many others in the set, 'from our Dad'. The family feel is a constant in the set: not only in the references to songs learnt from Mam and Dad Unthank, but in the way Rachel beamingly looks around at her band members during the songs - all of which just adds to the feelgood atmosphere. Odd, then, that the songs cover everything from child labour to domestic abuse to resigning yourself to the fact that your husband might die down the mines.
But therein lies the bewitchingly harsh beauty of The Unthanks. Go buy your ticket.