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The Unthanks

Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield
Saturday 28 February 2015

The rather damp and drizzly evening began with the last of the rush hour traffic leaving town, making way for the city's night life to commence on cue. Saturday night in any city can be a noisy affair, which always seems to be preceded by a calm before the storm scenario as dusk descends upon the skyline. Umbrellas bobbed along the sodden pavements leading down to the imposing City Hall where an orderly queue had already begun to form at the side entrance leading to the ornate art deco ballroom that lies beneath the main auditorium. Down a few flights of stairs and a quick visit to the bar, where Unthankians of all ages were beginning to congregate, the much anticipated entourage had arrived in Sheffield via their impressive tour bus for the seventh date in their current MOUNT THE AIR tour, which began in Southampton a week ago and which has been steadily moving northwards ever since.

The most noticeable thing upon entering the ballroom tonight was the absence of chairs, save for a few scattered around the sides for those who needed them most. I've been to a few Unthank soirees in my time but this was the first standing only gig I can recall. I sensed that this wasn't going down well with some of the ticket holders but I guess it had to be this way in order to squeeze as many people in as possible. Others didn't seem to mind and were more than happy to stand, especially those hugging the safety barrier in front of the stage. I have to say, with a set that provides little opportunity to dance, the sight of a wall of shadowy standing figures all facing the same way silhouetted by the well-lit stage, did look a little like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just as the mother ship lands on the foreboding Devil's Tower. Fortunately, that films now iconic five-note sequence was tonight vastly improved upon by some of the most exquisite music The Unthanks have ever delivered.

Before their arrival on stage though, Adrian McNally introduced the young London-based singer/songwriter Raevennan Husbandes to the stage, who had joined the tour a couple of nights previously in Cardiff. Her first time in Sheffield, the singer casually walked on stage to perform a handful of songs, all of which were courteously received by the audience. "You're so quiet" the singer said as she peered out at the audience, shading her eyes from the spotlight, to which someone from the back of the room responded "it's reverence". The quiet may have been a little disconcerting to the singer, but it was more than welcomed by the audience who could hear every nuance of each of her songs, including Box of Innocence, Sirens and Solitude and Stone together with House of Wood, the song Raevennan contributed to Adrian McNally's HARBOUR OF SONGS project back in 2012. Finishing with the beautiful To the Sea, a song that appears on an album Raevennan recorded with Manchester-based singer/songwriter Tracey Browne, the charismatic singer's set went a good way towards making new friends in this particular neck of the woods.

After a fairly lengthy break, allowing ample time for Raevennan to chat with people at the concessions stand, the ten-piece ensemble that makes up the latest Unthanks touring band, opened their 90-minute set with Hawthorn, one of the songs from their new critically-acclaimed album. Victoria Rule's trumpet and Adrian McNally's delicate piano blended perfectly as Becky Unthank almost whispered the song's lyrics, joined at strategic intervals by sibling Rachel, who provided some gentle harmonies that would recur throughout the set. After the more determined Madam, which brought in the full band and featuring the lead voice of Rachel, the band turned their attention temporarily to older material with Felton Lonnin and Lucky Gilchrist, from THE BAIRNS and HERE'S THE TENDER COMING periods respectively.

There always seems to be a mixture of tension and release in everything The Unthanks do and more so when delivering any new piece of work. Last Lullaby and For Dad are both extremely delicate yet daringly venturesome at the same time, in that the former starts with part of a 17th century lullaby by Thomas Dekker, later reworked by The Beatles as Golden Slumbers and the latter featuring a recorded intro, the same spoken sample that appears on the new album, which prefaces Niopha Keegan's graceful fiddle composition. All this then seamlessly segues into the band's arrangement of the traditional Magpie; you could sense the audience holding their collective breath.    

If anyone was holding their breath mid-way through the concert, it very well may have been Becky Unthank as she debuted her own song Flutter, a rather unusual dream-like composition, which at times sounds as if it could be a curious musical bedfellow to Died for Love, which itself came along after a tribute to two of the band's leading influences, Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty with Out of the Blue and Spiralling respectively. The Unthanks have never hidden nor shied away from their influences and in some cases have dedicated entire album projects to one or two of them, notably Wyatt and Hegarty. Over the years, the band have also tipped their caps to Nick Drake, Tom Waits and even The Beatles. The material performed tonight, whether self-written, traditional or contemporary, made effective use of the eight-piece band, featuring a string quartet, trumpet and flugelhorn, piano, double bass and drums, together with a variety of other instruments about the stage.    

Without a shadow of doubt the two outstanding performances of the night came towards the end of the set, with both Starless and Mount the Air back to back and both featuring some pretty tasteful note perfect trumpet soloing courtesy of Victoria Rule. Anyone familiar with King Crimson's final 1970s album RED, will know the sprawling closer Starless, which Becky and Adrian treat with utter reverence and probably, for my money, the definitive version. With no time to recover from that, the band launched into their own epic, the title song from the new album Mount the Air, all ten minutes of it, intended as the set's bold climax.

Mount the Air could quite easily have been the concert finale and I doubt anyone would've been disappointed in the least if it had been. The band however did return to the stage for a couple more songs, concluding with the title song from the band's fourth studio album LAST, a suitable lullaby written by Adrian McNally to conclude what turned out to be a most enjoyable and compelling concert.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky