The Unthanks, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Tue 24 Jan
Sisters deliver inventive tribute to Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty
This Celtic Connections show was the last planned outing for what Rachel Unthank, with inordinate modesty, refers to as ‘our self-indulgent experiment’ – that is, the Northumbrian folk collective’s double tribute to the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty. It’s a warm-hearted and wide-eyed exploration of two highly idiosyncratic songwriters that has given life not only to an extensive tour, but also a sublime live album (tantalisingly subtitled Diversions Vol. 1) received with effusive praise by none other than Wyatt himself.
The cheery between-song chat of sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank and the rest of the eleven-piece ensemble could seem at odds with the painfully intimate emotional wrangling of Hegarty’s songs in the first half, and the equally awkward questions posed by Wyatt’s philosophical and political mini-epics in the second. But while these are quite manifestly other people’s songs, the warmth and effortless way of the storyteller in the Unthanks’ delivery lends them such emotional clout as to bring a lump to the throat more than once.
The arrangements are as inventive as the original songs themselves, perfectly executed by a four-piece string section, piano, rhythm section and, on occasion, the gorgeous trumpet playing of Lizzie Jones. The harmonising of the sisters’ contrasting but complementary voices is as perfect as ever, and their differing timbres are put to good use, as when Becky’s more mellifluous, guileless voice takes on the achingly beautiful Wyatt love song ‘Sea Song’, while the harsher edges of Rachel’s clear tones are deployed with surprising vitriol in his seethingly angry war scene, ‘Out of the Blue’.
No doubt, like the songs they sing tonight, this group will soon take another unexpected twist and pull us all up short with something new, but here’s hoping this isn’t the last time they tackle this material, as the combination here of a careful, precise musicality with tender, characterful storytelling and an undisguised sense of awe before Wyatt and Hegarty’s songwriting, creates something really quite magical.