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The Unthanks - How the Wild Wind Blows

City Varieties, Leeds
Thursday 11 May 2017

This evening the city of Leeds was enjoying that all too familiar period which follows the fading of a sunny springtime afternoon, where those heading out for the evening - some bound for the local arena to see Iron Maiden - dodged and wavered around others heading home from work. A musician played his lonely tune on a blue violin outside the Louis Vuitton store on Briggate, a sound that jarred with The Supremes' Love Child filtering out from the Starbucks house system across the road. The familiar arched sign of the City Varieties Music Hall straddled the narrow street as the sold out venue greeted the first arrivals for the opening night of the band’s two consecutive shows.

As always, the atmosphere before the show was filled with anticipation, assisted in no small part by the quaint stage set, which took on the mantle of an English country drawing room, complete with seven standard lamps, four table lamps a couple of wicker garden chairs and a few vases of flowers mingling with decanters of water (or could that be gin?) as the spirit of Molly Drake loomed in the ether. I think we’re all agreed that our fascination with the songs and poems of Nick Drake's mum started after Joe Boyd passed around a dusty old cassette tape of Molly singing a selection of her own 'Noel Cowardish' compositions, specifically Love Isn't a Right, sharing his astonishment at just how similar the two voices sounded. Once seen, it's difficult to erase the expressions upon the faces of those who heard Molly's voice for the first time, their reactions filmed for the 1999 documentary A Stranger Among Us.

It seems likely that Adrian McNally and the two Unthank siblings may have seen this film and had also been taken by the singer's delicate songs and fragile delivery as were the rest of us. However, it was with Molly's posthumous self-titled album release, that really caught their imagination. Made up of songs that were never intended to be heard outside the family home, the album prompted the idea of basing the fourth instalment of The Unthanks' 'Diversions' series around some of this extraordinary material. Added to this came the grand idea of asking Nick Drake's actress sister Gabrielle to read some of their mum’s poetry for the album, which was nothing short of inspired.

Listening to the new arrangements of these old songs alongside the originals, which were first recorded by Molly's husband at their home in the 1950s, shows an enormous level of artistic respect and musical appreciation, something that was also apparent in the band's previous themed projects, The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, The Unthanks with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band and the most recent Songs from the Shipyards. There's an innocence ingrained within these songs which seems to have been passed through the family genes, to her ill-fated son and now through to The Unthanks, who by their closeness to the material and their newfound links with the Drake family and estate, have managed to bring the essence of the work to life once again; songs that are now reaching a new audience altogether. One cannot help but wonder what Molly - or for that matter Nick - might have thought of all this, a question that no doubt ran through the mind of Adrian McNally when he was arranging the music, a picture of Molly propped upon his piano in the studio throughout the recording process. What we do know, is that the family survivor Gabrielle not only gave her blessing to the project but also read the poetry herself with all the confidence and composure of the actor that she is.

The show was divided into two parts tonight, How the Wind Blows part I and part II and featured the five core members of The Unthanks, Adrian McNally, Rachel and Becky Unthank, Niopha Keegan and Chris Price with the addition of Leeds musician Faye MacCalman, recruited due to the fact that the clarinet was Molly's favourite instrument and also "to get the average age of band down a bit." Attired in contrasting dresses of matching green, both Rachel and Becky were first seated as Molly's voice filled the hall after some initial words spoken by Gabrielle, then both rose to deliver Molly's words with conviction, tenderness and empathy. What Can a Song Do To You, a question the Unthank siblings have probably asked themselves many times throughout their lives, seemed to be the perfect opener. Twin slides were projected onto the backdrop throughout the show, the audience becoming increasingly aware of who this extraordinary middle-class woman was, a woman born over a hundred years ago in Rangoon, Burma, who just happened to be the mother of Nick Drake, the tortured genius of song who left this world far too early in the mid-1970s.

It wasn't until after another couple of songs and poems, including I Remember, Woods in May and the haunting How Wild the Wind Blows, that the performers addressed the audience for the first time. "If you've come to see Iron Maiden, you're in the wrong place" Adrian announced breaking the bleak and melancholic atmosphere at last. "Bring your daughters to the slaughter Becky" suggested Rachel, teasing her sister who was confused by what her sister and brother-in-law were talking about. Happiness and Set Me Free followed the short fun-filled interlude, two songs imbued with Molly's homely sensibilities from the simple joys of life to the desire to liberate oneself from the chains and trappings of ordinary life. Gabrielle recited Molly's powerful words over the instrumental section, which provided us with one of the most poignant moments of the performance. Utterly beautiful.

Little Weaver Bird closed the first half before a short break, a song recently 'tried out' at the Unthank's annual series of singing weekends up in Northumberland, featuring some fine fiddle accompaniment courtesy of Niopha Keegan and led along by Chris Price's driving double bass.

Off came Adrian's jacket for the second half of the show, taking his seat once again at the grand piano to perform The First Day, which began with some brooding atmospherics, courtesy of Chris's slide and Faye's skittering clarinet, giving the composition the feel of a cold and misty morning. In response to Nick Drake's soulful Poor Boy, Molly wrote Poor Mum, which Rachel and Becky sang a cappella, a self-probing song concerning Molly's own maternal issues. 

Throughout the show, a small team co-ordinated the lights, sound effects and touching visuals, for the most part family portraits of Molly through various stages of her life and at the end one or two home movie film clips, portraying ordinary family events. Dedicating Do You Ever Remember to his soon to be 70 father, who was incidentally also in the audience, Adrian seemed slightly more relaxed as the band headed for the home straight. This is not easy music, despite the melodies and lyrics sounding fairly simple. Creating the right mood and context takes focus and skill and The Unthanks achieved both tonight. Such songs as Soft Shelled Crabs, The Road to the Stars and Never Pine for the Old Love, together with the poems The Shell and The Two Worlds, further exemplified Molly's mastery of words and melody, all of which the audience greeted in silence.

Performing the one song not composed by Molly Drake, Becky revisited Nick's song Riverman, which originally appeared on Rachel Unthank and the Winterset's debut album CRUEL SISTER back in 2005. Dedicated to a friend who the band recently lost, Riverman remains one of the most haunting and ethereal songs in the combined repertoires of both Nick and The Unthanks. Once again the arrangement called for an unaccompanied first verse, followed by a sparse piano accompanied second verse, before the song opened up like a flower, which was a beautiful inclusion to the second set. Having appeared in various guises - and numbers - over the years, from including string and brass sections to full-blown brass bands and orchestras, the six-piece version seemed perfectly formed for this particular project. Finishing with one final Molly Drake song, Dream Your Dreams, the notion kind of summed up the band's ethos, that despite all of the negativity and uncertainty in the world today, we can always dream our dreams.. and it took a woman who none of us ever knew to tell us that.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky