Last week British deputy PM Nick Clegg admitted that he regularly cries when he listens to music. Most of us have known for a long time that music has the power to reduce folk to a wibbling mess. Even so, to find yourself not just swelled of spirit but positively moist of eye at an Unthanks gig is a strange – if not entirely unwelcome – surprise.
The first luscious, swaying strains of ‘Last’ – a gentle, lullabic beauty – promptly caught me off guard. The siren-like vocals of Northumberland sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank appeared to immediately beguile and charm the Vicar Street audience. And from then on in, the gentle gorgeousness came thick and fast: a melancholic version of Jon Redfern’s ‘Give Away Your Heart’, Tom Waits’ ‘No-One Knows I’m Gone’, King Crimson’s ‘Starless’ and traditional offerings like ‘Cannie Hobbie Elliott’ and ‘My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up’. The marriage between the Unthanks’ vocals, the elaborate arrangements of a string quartet and Adrian McNally’s eerie piano is an inspired one; all of it tempered by the utterly charming burr of the sisters’ resolutely Northern vocals. It’s all very gentle, very epic, and very quietly disarming.
As the audience reveals in each delicious sucker punch, the Unthanks’ onstage banter is a sheer delight. We’re immediately brought up to speed on personal developments, for Rachel is 8 months pregnant (talk about giving a baby a head start in life), while Becky has recently become enfianced. The audience is then invited to one of the band’s residential singing weekends in their native Northumberland (you can feel the entire audience mentally clear their diaries). Much like their set, it’s all very earthy, uplifting and cosy. And, in a new world order where female artists like Gaga, Florence and La Roux are all mouth and all spangly trousers, this is an onstage approach that seems… well, kind of exotic.
As a mate observed, The Unthanks are like a lovely cult you’d be more than happy to run away with. Just remind me to pack enough tissues.