Friday, 11 May 2012

The Unthanks in Malvern

The Unthanks 
Live at the Forum Theatre, Malvern
Saturday 28 April
The Unthanks are not a barrel of laughs. There were very few upbeat songs in their set but their good-natured rapport with the audience lightened the mood enough to be able to carry the genial people of Malvern with them through an evening of slightly unsettling folk music. This was supposed to be ‘an intimate evening with The Unthanks, with support from Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell' but the Forum Theatre, unexpectedly packed, could hardly be called intimate. It's a grand old theatre that reminds me of Shrewsbury Music Hall where, as a teenager, I saw the likes of Ralph McTell, Prelude and Alan Hull. The Unthanks’ music is more disconcerting. Unusually for folk, their sound is dominated not by a guitar accompaniment but by the minimalist piano of producer and arranger Adrian McNally. Adrian's piano suits the often austere soundscapes of the  Northumberland-inspired songs performed by the ethereal voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank, whose occasional bursts of enthusiastic clog-dancing provided some unexpected moments of exuberance.

The band is an extended family and, when Jonny and Lucy were not on stage with The Unthanks, they appear to have been minding Rachel and Adrian’s baby backstage. Rather than the traditional structure of support act/break/headline act, all the musicians took turns to pop on and off stage in the second half, in various combinations, which gave the impression of an old-time variety show (and no doubt facilitated childminding responsibilities.) The audience appeared to enjoy the evening, although I don't imagine all of them were folk music enthusiasts and certainly not all fans of this peculiarly stark and fractured folk. But Rachel and Becky's voices are winningly beautiful and they can be forgiven for sticking with what they do best -- an uncompromising and unapologetic music, inextricably attached to its north eastern roots.


  1. Ralph McTell, Prelude and Alan Hull - that was music and those were the days. How come Prelude never quite managed to get the lyrics for 'After The Goldrush' right? What did they think a 'nineteen seventeen' might be? Sounds like it could be a haircut or an ice cream. Then again, they were spot on with 'Afternoon Delight'. That was them, wasn't it?

  2. I never noticed that Prelude got the lyrics wrong. Very observant of you. I'm not sure what a '1917' might be, but I know a '1910' is a fruitgum company, or so Simon Says. And, no, it wasn't Prelude that had a hit with 'Afternoon Delight' — that was the Starland Vocal Band. Ah, our ill-spent youth ...

  3. Oh dear. I've been blaming Prelude all these years. Starland Vocal Band? Vaguely rings a bell. Sounds like a group that should be playing the Nairobi Holiday Inn. If only I had an ill-spent youth. Keep up the good work.


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).