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Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Camalots, Doncaster
Wednesday 21 March 2007

I think the last time I entered the confines of Camelots in Doncaster, the building was still resting upon hallowed ground. Coincidentally, the last time I attended a Rachel Unthank and the Winterset gig, it was also in a converted church in historic York. Perfectly fitting in my opinion, as this music has been my religion for the best part of the last four decades, and in the specific case of this band, the best part of the last couple of years, and tonight I was privileged once again to receive communion in the form of wine from the bar and the sliced bread from what is currently my favourite band. Well, they are certainly the best thing since, at any rate. 

I was first of all saddened upon arriving at the gig, to hear of the departure of Jackie Oates from the band, but was fortunately spared the details, as I fear it may have been an awkward departure. I choose not to burden myself with the reasons why such a perfectly formed entity should fragment, but trust that the correct decisions have been made by people who know better than I. As Lennon & McCartney once said, life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friends, damn right man. Ironically, their fragmentation in the late Sixties was one of the ugliest in living memory. 

Becky Unthank has once again forced me to refill my ink well and pluck another quill from this patient bird in order to write a few choice words in an attempt to describe precisely what her voice does to the cockles of my heart. Before we get onto the actual voice itself, let's just for a second consider her stance. Like her elder sister, Becky is small framed and by both sisters' own admission, instigated by Belinda O'Hooley's dry observation, they are indeed hobbit-like. If Peter Jackson's aim was to find two pretty hobbits, then he need look no further than the Unthank sisters to inhabit his ideal Middle Earth. To me though, Becky reminds me of a much more important predecessor in the shape of Anne Briggs. Unfortunately, I was just a little too late to witness first hand the youthful Anne Briggs in her heyday, one arm carefully folded behind her back, hooked securely into her other hand, head held high, delicate face flanked by locks of dark brooding hair, as she delighted stunned audiences in the Singers' Clubs of the Sixties, all encapsulated in a fleeting yet glorious monochrome memory for the likes of those of us who missed it. What we have in Becky Unthank, is the same vulnerability of fresh-faced youth, bearing an almost defiant gaze reminiscent of Manet's Olympia, the unconscious use of her hands, holding her torso as if to force out every ounce of energy from deep within, and guess what? It's all in vivid and vibrant colour this time around for our delight. Such rhetoric may be considered slightly forced by some, but it is worthy once you experience the sound of the unique and ethereal voice that somehow projects from that little hobbit. Becky Unthank is the perfect hybrid of Anne Briggs and Nick Drake. Beautifully phrased traditional passages delivered in otherworldly tones and I simply cannot get enough of it. 

Singling out Becky Unthank for such praise is unkind to the rest of the band, but I feel this is old news to them. The music is obviously arranged to place each voice in its most effective niche, and on such songs as Cyril Tawney's On A Monday Morning for example, Becky's voice comes in at exactly the right time. Rachel sets the mood with her rich and clear Northumbrian vernacular, an accent you could probably pinpoint to a specific street, augmented by Belinda's sensitive and moody piano motifs and just as you are settling into exactly what we all think about Monday mornings, Becky breathes in a new and exciting angle. The song is instantly transformed from the mundane dirge of a miserable Monday morning to something sexy, something beautiful..

My love he lies asleep
My love he is warm and his heart is mellow
I'd give the whole world just to share his pillow
On a Monday morning

The words are basically Tawney's but the mood conveyed here is deliberately fashioned for maximum effect and is one of the high points of the entire set and works perfectly upon each performance. This carefully planned sonic distribution appears throughout a Winterset performance and can be found in other established songs such as John Dead, Twenty Long Weeks and Troubled Waters, all of which were performed tonight. 

Belinda O'Hooley never fails to astound me with her mixture of technical ability, restrained sensitivity and bold experimentation. On I Wish for instance, Belinda plays some of the most adventurous discordant tonal poems 'over' a purposefully droning fiddle and 'under' two of the most compatible voices on the music scene today. Belinda's other two notable major contributions tonight were on her own composition Cold and Stiff with its instantly recognisable piano hook and its 'let's get to the point' lyric, and her fantastic duet with Becky on Antony and the Johnsons' For Today I Am A Boy, with it's force to be reckoned with no nonsense vocal delivery from both women, whether Amazonian or Hobbit.

Although there is a rich tapestry of harmony singing to behold at a Winterset gig, I prefer to think of the style in the 'part singing' tradition of Robin and Barry Dransfield. It's not strictly harmony singing, but two voices, and sometimes up to four voices, weaving different melodies in and out of the song in an intriguing and pleasing fashion. The Cutter Medley (think of a set of fiddle tunes but replace it with songs) could easily fall into disarray in the hands of an inferior group of people, but the Winterset manage to keep its complex arrangement in order. I was particularly enchanted by the bands' reading of Farewell Regality for various reasons, not least the frequent mention of Hexhamshire, which to a Geordie descendant, sounds like home. 

There's nothing absolutely polished to perfection about this band. Where some contemporaries have suffered at the hands of clinically correct production, the Winterset have allowed us the pleasure of some rough edges, which puts them up there with the likes of Nic Jones and The Watersons and keeping up with the Jones's and the Watersons is no mean feat by any standards. I like music to have rough edges; they keep the safe and smooth safely and smoothly at bay.  

Allan Wilkinson
Northernsky