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Archive 2006: Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

NCEM, York
Monday 27 November 2006

Again, I'm thrown into a dilemma; how to write a constructive review of a Rachel Unthank and The Winterset gig without babbling on like an imbecile or gushing uncontrollably over these four women. I make no apologies for maintaining that they are the best breath of fresh air in a musical genre that is currently experiencing a gale, nay, a veritable hurricane of fresh air. If there was a sixth scale on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale of fresh air, Rachel Unthank and The Winterset would be it. Oh yes, they would knock Katrina into a cocked hat! So good is this band, that even one of my all time heroes Nic Jones was in the audience tonight, but more of this later.

Tonight's performance at the National Centre for Early Music in York was every bit as exciting as I thought it would be. After an unaccompanied starter from Rachel, The Winterset, comprising Rachel's younger sister Becky, the angelic Jackie Oates on Viola and the inimitable Belinda O'Hooley seated at the NCFEM's esteemed grand piano, launched into a faultless performance of Cyril Tawney's magnificent On A Monday Morning, the song that introduced most of us to the band in the first place as the opening track of their much lauded debut album CRUEL SISTER. I have embarrassed myself on more than a couple of occasions now, when each time I march up to Becky Unthank and tell her straight that she is my favourite singer in England today. Her voice makes my knees weaken, and no words on a page can do it justice, you just have to hear it for yourself in order to understand the proof/pudding concept. 

It's Rachel Unthank though, who is the leader of this band, and nothing can be taken away from the power of her voice. Although Becky gets my ears going, Rachel is what they now like to refer to as 'eye-candy' and although it is probably inappropriate to mention this in a folk music review context, I care not a single jot. She is, for all intents and purposes, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, for whom Dante Gabriel Rossetti would've been scribbling poetry whilst he got his brushes out - 'Now stand over at the desk me duck whilst I catch your best side, and whilst you're at it, give us a chorus of Twenty Long Weeks'

Jackie Oates is a delightful young singer who has full control over the delivery of a traditional song and embellishes everything with a mature comand over the five string viola. Sadly, even good ones like Jackie fall prey to the scumbags of our society - Jackie had her beloved viola stolen recently and has had to replace it, like pronto. The frustrating thing about this band, if there could possibly be such a thing, is that once you get settled into one voice, as I did with Jackie tonight, almost begging for more, another one perks up instantaneously and with equal intensity manages to take you somewhere else completely.

Much of the first album came out to play tonight, as well as a whole host of new stuff that is presumably destined for the eagerly awaited follow up album. Failing memory has rendered this reviewer useless, I was too involved with voices and sounds to even bother about song titles and chronic shyness prevented me from a) taking out me note book to scribble down notes, an uncool thing at the best of times let alone whilst your on the front row, and b) asking Rachel for her set list at the end of the gig. Walking up to the stage and stealing it was tempting, but it bore the hallmarks of 'pervert', so I spared my son Liam the embarrassment of seeing his old man marched out with his arm up his back.

Belinda O'Hooley is the genius of this parish. Her piano arrangements are more than just delightful; they are essential. They provide the catalyst that draws together all the elements, unifying the whole sound into the spectacle that it is. The piano/viola/cello arrangement for The Lily/Igbod verges on the complexity of, let's throw in a name to send a shiver up your spine, Eleanor Rigby. Well nearly. Belinda and Becky's take on Antony and the Johnsons' For Today I Am A Boy is a tour de force of vocal dexterity. 

I have no real cause to express any disappointment about tonight, although I confess I would've loved to have heard Becky's rendition of Nick Drake's River Man. I'm not the best person on earth to be presented with a Nick Drake cover, but when a singer makes it their own, you just have to accept it. Becky Unthank's River Man is indeed her own. 

Encores are never predictable. Some save their hit till last, some choose to do a throw away rock 'n' roll song to send the audience off to the car park. Sometimes though, just sometimes, some just astonish you to humbled silence with a thing of pure beauty and grace. The aforementioned amnesia means I am unable to put a name to the last song of the night, but there again, no words can actually describe it. Beautiful comes close.

Now, who would've thought I would just casually bump into a man called Nic Jones tonight? Max came up to me and told me that Nic was in the building and I suddenly experienced an almost spiritual epiphany. We were in a church and there was a presence. When I saw my old hero standing over by the bar, I went up to him to shake his hand. To those who remember the Seventies folk scene, Nic Jones was a towering figure in English music, one of the best interpreters of folk ballads. His career was taken away from him after a nasty car accident in 1982, the injuries of which have made it impossible for him to work ever since. We chatted for what seemed like ages and he was absolutely delightful. He gave Liam some great advice, he said 'don't make the mistake we all did in the old days, don't take it too seriously, just have fun and laugh a lot' Amen to that.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky