Rachel Unthank & The Winterset - The Shed, Cambridge Junction
It's Autumn at last. The leaves have turned into some amazing shades of yellow, red and brown, the winter coat is out and the only thing to make me leave the comfort of the pub on a cold November Saturday night is the excellent Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. I shall admit upfront that folk music isn't my area of expertise - I like what I like, but I don't know a great deal about traditional folk music or the huge wealth of artists in the UK. I was enlightened by the fantastic Folk Britannia series on the BBC this year which sparked my interest in Folk music proper and encouraged me to attend the Cambridge Folk Festival this year (my first time in six years of being a Cambridge resident). One afternoon I encountered Rachel Unthank and her talented sister and band members and was so moved by their blend of folk music that I had to see them again when they announced their tour.
Before them, however, we were treated to the impressive Jon Redfern. Accompanied by a cellist and guitarist / pianist he played haunting acoustic folk and possess a voice deep and mellow that reminds me of John Martyn at his ethereal best. The music, whilst simple and evocative, was embellished by some impressive guitar playing on Redferns' behalf, skipping and flitting through chords that sounded on one hand sad and thoughtful and on the other joyful and uplifting. Whilst he looked a little uncomfortable when not performing, his nervous banter warmed the crowd and the music left us wanting more, as any act should.
A quick trip to the bar was all that was allowed before Rachel Unthank and troupe arrived on stage. They blur the lines between traditional and contemporary folk music. Their set was based around songs taught to them by their local folk club, family members and random Scandinavian’s as well as songs penned by their own fair hands. What rises this group above all the other traditional folk bands is the arrangements - the vocal harmonies are simple yet the impressive accompaniment, mainly just piano and violin / fiddle with the odd cello part played by Rachel, augment the words and bring them to the fore, making you concentrate on what they're actually singing. What this does make you realise is that most folk music is quite depressing and deals with loss, rejection and people who struggle through life.
Whilst this might make the evening a little depressing, it's their banter with the crowd and each other that creates a more lively and relaxed atmosphere. Before their excellent cover of Antony & The Johnsons For Today I Am A Boy, Belinda O'Hooley asks whether Becky Unthank is trying to tell the band something about an upcoming operation... Then, before O'Hooley launches into one of her own songs, Cold & Stiff, recounting how it's about trying to tell her Aunt that she's gay and will never be bringing a young man home to Ireland - the song has plenty of bile and delivered with venom, but the introduction disarms you and readies you for the onslaught!
As the gig reaches it's end, the crowd have been completely wowed and won over by the girls. We've been entertained by songs of whaling, obscure Northumbrian New Year's parties and a tale of a spurned woman getting her revenge by stabbing the offending gentleman. We've also had clog dancing. Who says Tily And The Wall did it first? Whilst the only negative was Jackie Oates losing her voice during one of her songs, her excellent violin and fiddle playing more than made up for it. I might not be the most knowledgeable person on folk music, but I know good music and talented musicians. Tonight I saw both.