The term new folk is now so overused that it has almost lost its meaning; any young musician with an acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle or ukulele is inevitably branded as belonging to the genre. Yet the beguiling music of The Unthanks is irrefutably not part of new folk. Rachel and Becky Unthank, the two sisters who front the group may have youth on their side, but their bewitching songs and stories have been handed down through the generations, forming part of a Northumbrian tradition. More old folk than new folk it would seem.
The Unthanks are an extraordinary talent - a group to be treasured. The heady summer warmth and stillness of the space at Brighton’s St George’s Church amplifies just how beautifully important this 10 piece’s music is. From the opening exacting piano and strings of Annachie Gordon, Becky’s voice wraps around the songs in a way that is sensuous and velvety; Rachel’s voice complimenting by being girlish, charming and full of clarity. Their tandem harmonies are knee-weakening in their loveliness. The tunes performed are often downbeat and melancholic, every instrument - a mix of violins, ukulele, trumpet, piano and percussion – perfectly played. It gets even better when the band exits the stage and the two sisters take to the floor of the church to sing without amplification – the only sound you can hear besides their spellbinding Geordie harmonies is that of hairs standing up on the backs of necks. The songs may be heavy in their subject material - the incredibly poignant The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw for example deals with the plight of a young woman working in the coal mines in the 19th century - but the music is so exquisite and evocative that the audience can only be left with the most uplifting of feelings.
Rachel and Becky have warm personalities made from amiable and often comical stage banter. Becky tells of purchasing gold shoes last time they were in Brighton – a fashion that is completely out of place in their homeland of Northumbria where their nearest neighbour is a shepherd. Shoe themes are continued with snatches of clog dancing during some of the songs, including the upbeat end-of-pier-music-hall jig of Betsy Belle which adds a whoop ’n’ hollerin’ stampede of energy to the end of the set. However, the moments of fun never trivialise the subject matter of the songs or the bands ability to deliver superbly emotive pieces - not in a false X factor ‘big moment’ way, but through meticulous instrumentation awash with subtlety. It is an exceptional live performance by an exceptional band.
As Jesus looks down from a cross above the stage, he must be thinking that he can hear heaven. And if he could speak he would probably be whispering that The Unthanks are the best live folk band in Britain.