Playing to a sold-out Pavilion Theatre, The Unthanks are depleted tonight. That is, they are not carrying their usual rhythm section, and Chris Price has decamped from bass to acoustic guitar. It leads to a more subdued performance than usual, with Rachel and Becky backed only by core regulars Adrian McNulty on piano, Niopha Keegan on violin, and the aforementioned Price. The reasoning behind this, they tell us, is that the supporting cast get to do some of their own, quieter, songs – as Chris demonstrates with his mid-set ‘Hippity Pie’ and ‘All I Can Do’. But it means the rest of the proceedings sometimes lack a certain customary oomph.
Opener ‘A Great Northern River’, from latest release Diversions, Vol. 3: Songs from the Shipyards, is followed by Here’s The Tender Coming’s ‘Lucky Gilchrist’, and then Last’s ‘Canny Hobbie Elliott’. After a few technical problems with mics are resolved before they become a plague, we get renditions of another Last track, ‘Close The Coalhouse Door’, and then Tender’s moving ‘The Testament of Patience Kershaw’. Becky solos on a version of Nick Drake’s ‘Riverman’, and then its Rachel’s turn for ‘The January Man’.
However, perhaps the most appealing characteristic of what The Unthanks do is the contrast between the sisters’ voices when they sing in harmony, Rachel’s a resonant, crystal-pure instrument, while Becky brings the breathy smoulder, as ably illustrated on a couple of lullabies, ‘Golden Slumbers’ (usually credited to Lennon/McCartney, but apparently ‘Trad. Arr.’) and the sublimely soporific ‘Newcastle Lullaby’ from The Bairns.
It’s odd that Becky asks us if we’ve heard of Robert Wyatt, given that the first album in their Diversions series was 2011’s The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons, Live from the Union Chapel. Equally strange was Rachel earlier telling us that for those of us who hadn’t seen the band since their Vicar Street gig, when she was heavily pregnant, that she’d since had a boy, George. As I recall, at the intervening Whelan’s gigs of the Wyatt and Antony material (two nights because the first one sold out) George was being breast-fed backstage, before and after. Do they presume that the covers projects are just for hardcore fans, while Vicar Street and The Pavilion draw the mainstream audience? Whatever, ‘Sea Song’ (which actually first appeared on The Bairns) follows. Then Adrian sings Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’, from Songs from the Shipyards, and the evening ends with ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’.
Although it could be argued that there are cutesy aspects to The Unthanks’ image – the sensible dresses, the woolly cardigans, the clog-dancing for God’s sake (the one element of their shows I could gladly live without) – deployed in an unnecessary effort to bolster claims to authenticity, it cannot be gainsaid that they have something very special. Nick Cave (via Lorca) likes to use the Spanish word duende; it used to be called ‘soul’; nowadays most of us probably call it ‘groove’. We could also cop-out, and just go for ‘the ineffable’ (as Beckett defines it: ‘that which cannot be eff-ed’). Whatever ‘it’ is, with or without a rhythm section, The Unthanks have it in spades.