Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Fri 9 May; ABC, Glasgow, Sat 10 May
It’s a decidedly domestic vibe at chateau Unthank when Rachel comes to the phone. ‘I’ve just been doing a bit of gardening and I had to go into town to pick up a new cello case,’ she chirrups. It may not be coke-on-the-cornflakes living but Rachel Unthank, who along with her singing younger sibling Becky, Niopha Keegan and newcomer Stef Conner make up the Winterset, have had a rapturous reception to their music that would befit any stadium rock god, especially, for their second album, 2007’s The Bairns.
‘We were totally blown away by the response,’ says Unthank about the feverish press excitement that has enveloped everyone from The Sun to The Telegraph via fRoots and Mojo. ‘The best was from Robert Wyatt though [whose song ‘Sea Song’ Becky sings on The Bairns]. He’s not someone whose music I grew up with but when I heard it I realised just what you can do with a song, so his praise is tremendous.’
The band’s music is spare, often delicate, occasionally furious; taking traditional songs, sourced from their Northumbrian childhood and mixing them up with recent compositions, like those from the aforementioned Mr Wyatt and Will Oldham, plus a few originals. The effect is breathtaking with intensely beautiful singing, often four off-kilter harmonies interwoven, backed by piano, cello, fiddle and the occasional stamp of a foot. The sister’s voices share a familiar north-eastern brogue, producing something that sounds rooted in English folk traditions but has an atmosphere and awkward, wayward spirit all its own.
Fresh from a St George’s Day concert organised by Billy Bragg – ‘we even met the little bloke from The Enemy, I was taller than him when I put on my heels. Lovely little fella, very charming’ – and are limbering up for a summer of festivals across Europe, including Glastonbury. ‘We were taken round all these folk festivals as kids and it was brilliant. We got to catch up with friends and hear all sorts of things and now we do it in our own right.’