For a country that is supposedly a closed shop for English traditional music, The Unthanks are relatively frequent visitors to Irish shores. From festivals to Vicar St, Whelan’s and theatres like the Pavilion, you could start to fear a sense of overkill. What saves them is that they seem to appear in a different form each time. The past twelve months alone have seen them take on the work of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons and collaborate with a brass band, yet this third instalment of their Diversions project (released next month) is perhaps their most ambitious yet – a live soundtrack to a new film on the shipbuilding industry in the North East of England.
Thus tonight we get a very different Unthanks show. Arriving in the half light, they play second fiddle to Richard Fenwick’s Songs From The Shipyards, projected on the back of the stage. That means no between song chat, no clog dancing and no familiar material. Once you get used to this approach, it’s a memorising evening. Stripped back to their core five piece, the musical subtleties of piano, acoustic guitar and especially Niopha Keegan’s fiddle are brought to the fore. Moving away from the lengthy, weighty feel of their normal material, the songs tonight flit in and out of proceedings, adding extra depth to the visuals.
The story begins in the midst of World War II and, although perhaps a little more explanation might have helped, follows through to the industry’s heyday and beyond. It’s all quite parochial and, while keeping with the tour’s port theme, Dun Laoghaire is hardly a historic shipbuilding location. The themes of both the documentary and music strike a universal chord, particularly the yards’ decline in the face of modern practices and foreign competition. It takes the arrival on screen of Margaret Thatcher (to audible hisses from the audience) to wrench the story into the familiar. The night’s most heart stopping moment comes when the haunting first line of Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ rings out, leading to archive footage of the Falklands War and the juxtaposition of Union Jack waving crowds and mass military graves.
Without the light relief of Rachel and Becky’s onstage banter, the evening slides to an unavoidably melancholic conclusion –with slow motion footage of falling cranes played out as the band perform the beautiful ‘Only Remembered’. They return for a short encore, restoring normal service with ‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’ and ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’, dedicating a song to Villagers and promising yet another return early next year. While such familiarity might breed apathy with some artists, the sense that The Unthanks might have yet another surprise up their sleeves only leaves you counting the days.