by / May 7th, 2008 /

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – Upstairs at Whelans, Dublin

Rachel Unthank

While we might like to think the whole ‘he said / she said / they’ve sold out!‘ school of internet debate is restricted to the world of uber cool indie guitar bands, the truth is that it has spread much further. Of late, certain elements of the folk world have becoming quite vexed at the rise of Rachel Unthank and her cohorts The Winterset, not least their licensing deal with a major record label and the increasing amount of mainstream interest they’re garnering. This and the fact that they’re young women wearing frocks has been enough to provoke mutterings of some sort of manufactured band. It’s nonsense of course, but what has happened is that Unthank and co have created the kind of record that manages to transcend boundaries and break out of any ghetto that some may wish to impose. Live, though, this is still very much a traditional folk experience.

The concept of a front person is slightly odd, as sister Becky takes on as much of the vocal and audience interaction duties as Rachel herself. The vibe of the night couldn’t be more different to your average alternative gig, as the pair chat away un-self-consciously about all manner of things and entreat the audience to join in on the choruses. You can almost feel the mainstream interlopers trying to melt into the shadows. Yet it is also very clear why they have been encouraged into this strange environment. Stripped down to the bare essentials of exquisite harmony vocals, piano and Niopha Keegan’s fiddle, the music has an unworldly beauty that makes it stand out from much of today’s folk scene. There are strident tales of battling domestic abuse, drinking yourself stupid and a lot of the windswept Northumbrian hills. That they cover songs by Robert Wyatt and Will Oldham is perhaps no surprise, as the tradition they chose to evoke has much in common with what has gone since. It is an evening that combines an easy going charm with a soundtrack of high drama, mournful tales and an overriding sense of something new.

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