The Unthanks - Cardiff Glee Club

Rachel Unthank stands centre stage, dwarfed by an enormous, fluorescent sculpture of the word Glee. She glances up at it before turning to the audience and grimly announcing This is a song called Sad February. At face value the choice of a ‘glee’ club to host a folk band who’ve built a career on the performance of songs of death and sadness seems rather perverse but there’s more to the new look Unthanks than depressing songs. Any band which can include a bit of clog dancing in its repertoire has got to have a decent sense of humour.

This is only the second public performance from the all new, ten piece Unthanks and there are understandably a few teething problems along the way, the first of which being the logistical complexities of fitting ten band members on a stage designed to accommodate nothing more than Frankie Boyle and his inflatable ego. A rather downbeat start to the show, including the heart rending ‘Twenty Long Weeks’ from their debut Cruel Sister, is soon dissipated when the introduction of ‘Lucky Gilchrist’ is interrupted by an eleventh member rushing onto the stage at full tilt. It turns out to be Johnny Kearney, guitarist of the support act, who is due to play additional guitar on the song – his late arrival due to his being stuck in the toilet. The song ends in a similar amount of chaos as their brand new, expensive keyboard is sent hurtling to the floor as the band struggle to find breathing space on the stage. This is only our second show Becky apologetically reminds us then, grinning, adds and we’re still deciding what to drop.

They’ve clearly got a great deal of confidence in the strength of their new material as it is a full hour before they perform anything from their Mercury nominated album The Bairns and even then they restrict this to just ‘Felton Lonnin’ and, eventually, a new arrangement of ‘Blackbird’ which is introduced as an homage to the Penguin Café Orchestra. The show contains two genuine showstoppers, the first of which being Becky’s heartbreaking rendition of ‘Annachie Gordon’ which, of course, ends in death and woe for all protagonists. Where Becky is all blue notes and breathy emotion Rachel matches her with the strident, soul piercing voice of a born storyteller and her rendition of ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’ is met by tumultuous applause from a rapt audience. It seems incredible that this is the second time that the Unthanks have played Cardiff in less than a year and, in that time, they’ve wholly revamped the band, the arrangements and the set to create something which surely cannot be restricted to a ‘folk’ audience for much longer.

They are unquestionably a folk band however and nowhere is this better illustrated than in their attempt to introduce pop music to their repertoire, where an ill advised cover version of the Beatles ‘Sexy Sadie’ sticks out like a sore thumb and painfully interrupts the flow of the set. Thankfully this is an isolated aberration and the show closes with a saucy, raucous rendition of ‘Betsy Bell’ from Becky, including a solo clog stampede from Rachel, before proceedings are brought gracefully to a conclusion with a communal rendition of a traditional Northumbrian folk tune about the press gangs called ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’. The Unthanks are the modern face of British folk: young, vibrant and funny without sacrificing or trivialising any of the traditional subject matter or medium, they are undoubtedly one of the most essential live acts currently performing in UK.

(Words & Archive Pictures: Steve Burnett)

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