The Unthanks are not an easy band to categorise. They are ostensibly a folk group led by the eponymous Unthank sisters yet they are not simply a finger in your ear singing about highwaymen being hung at the crossroads performers. They take traditional English, especially Northumbrian folk music in unexpected and beautifully orchestrated directions.
The concert began with two songs from Newcastle-based Tim Dalling, an unusual choice for a support act for The Unthanks in that he was as much a comedian as a singer. He was possibly the first and only person at a folk concert to describe a jig as ‘menacing’ but once you heard his accordion led drinking song you could see why.
One of the joys of an Unthanks performance is their engaging with the audience and interplay between the musicians. The first two songs in their set sounded good, archetypal Unthanks songs, elegiac and melancholic, led by piano and trumpet, yet there was something intangible missing. Perhaps they were a little nervous one can only guess.
Thankfully by the third song, Felton Lonnin, a traditional Northumbrian song about a lost child, the connection with their audience was there and an evening of sublime music followed.
The subject matter of many of their songs is bleak, as is to be expected from folk music however the lush arrangements, for strings, piano and trumpet place them in a setting where bleakness has never sounded so good.
Last Lullaby, written by older sister Rachel, is one of the few which is bordering on uplifting, its gentle cadences lulling the audience into an absorbed reverie which was not broken until the final song of the first half Mount the Air. The title track from the new album is a ten minute masterpiece, an arrangement of a two line folk song which builds to an epic crescendo of piano, strings, drums and voices leaving the crowd stunned and eagerly anticipating the second half.
After a 15-minute interval and a couple more songs from Tim Dalling, The Unthanks returned and played an astonishing version of the Robert Wyatt song Out of the Blue. The arrangement by the group’s viola player Becca Spencer was spiky, intense and Michael Nyman-esque perfectly complementing the subject matter, a civilian returning to his bombed out house and the emotional repercussions experienced.
This was followed by a version of Antony Hegarty’s Spiralling which matched the original for intensity and spine tingling moments.
A few more songs later, including a solo violin lament by long term violinist Niopha Keegan followed by some beautiful harmonies on a song of her own and the gig was almost over.
The rapturous applause of the audience persuaded them to return for an encore which began with a breathtaking vocals only piece featuring the Unthank sisters and Keegan before the rest of the band returned to play Lucky Gilchrist and Last, leaving the audience desperate for the show not to end.
A triumphant return to Bristol by one of the finest folk groups in the world.