Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Live Review | The Drill Hall, Lincoln | Review by Allan Wilkinson

With so many great singer songwriters about these days, especially in light of the fact that MySpace creates one per minute, it’s becoming rare for me to want to dwell on just the one for more than is absolutely necessary. Tonight however, as soon as Devon Sproule played the last note on her prized ES125 1954 Gibson, I wanted to rewind and start over again, and I dare say once again even after that. Playing a solo support spot to Rachel Unthank and the Winterset at the Drill Hall in Lincoln, Devon captivated the audience with a handful of memorable songs, delivered in her offbeat and delightful quirky fashion. I am reminded of a pre-MacColl Peggy Seeger, the way Ewan MacColl once described her, as a young American college girl on foreign shores with worn out plimsolls and filthy neck that hasn’t been washed in weeks.

The waif-like Sproule is neither American nor does she possess a filthy neck, but she certainly has that youthful charisma and a stage presence that immediately captivates you, as Seeger must have had in the Fifties. Almost totally obscured by her guitar, Devon sang a handful of what I like to refer to as ‘story songs’, songs that have a tale to tell. Like Gillian Welch before her, Devon comes across as something of a throw back to simpler times. Her Virginia roots come over much clearer than her actual Canadian roots, where she was born. Opening with “Plea for a Good Night’s Rest” from her Upstate Songs album, lightly brushing her fingers against the strings of her vintage guitar, the ‘love of her life after her husband’ she tells us, the audience is hushed to complete silence. It has been a long time since I have been instantly drawn in, usually it takes three of four songs, but tonight it was instant. “Julie”, a song from the Found Magazine project, could quite easily have been written by Nanci Griffith and wouldn’t have been out of place on the Last of the True Believers album. It is that sort of story telling that we were presented with in the wake of the ‘New Country’ giants of the late Eighties, but with an updated ‘Kooky’ edge. (‘Kooky’ is Becky Unthank’s description I hasten to add.) With a nod to fellow Canadian Neil Young (to include a tribute to either Mitchell, Cohen, Young or a McGarrigle or two appears to be practically a national duty according to Sproule) “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is given the inimitable Sproule treatment. Finishing with “Old Virginia Block”, from her second and much praised album Keep Your Silver Shined, the song should probably have fallen flat on it’s face without the support of the full band, and in particular the double bass slapping of Randall Pharr and the flirty fiddling of Morwenna Lasko, but it once again comes down to the jewel that is the stripped down basic song. In the hands of such an inspiring performer as Devon Sproule, it works equally as well without all the trimmings. The fact that Devon will be back stateside this weekend is particularly frustrating as I would have been keen to catch her once again. Ah well, maybe next year. Are you awake Cambridge? Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are currently enjoying widespread approval from music fans young and old and not just from the world of folk music. Their critically acclaimed second album The Bairns has received a resounding thumbs up from most who have heard it and their appearances on both local and national radio have forced people to take note. The band are currently on their first tour of major UK venues and tonight saw their first visit to Lincoln, where they played to an almost full house at the Drill Hall in the city. After their nail-biting album launch at this summers’ Cambridge Folk Festival and the subsequent handful of dates since they embarked on this current tour, kicking off in Edinburgh, Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, fiddler Niopha Keegan and supremo pianist Belinda O’Hooley have settled into performing their new album in front of live audiences with relative ease. Tonight, most of the songs were from The Bairns with the exception of “On a Monday Morning” and “Fair Rosamund” from the first album Cruel Sister, together with a staggeringly beautiful rendition of Antony and the Johnson’s sublime “For Today I am a Boy” and one of Belinda’s songs “Cold n Stiff”, a popular live favourite from her new EP Chinese Whispers. The rest of the concert was a feast for those of us who love The Bairns. In the first set Rachel and Becky shared vocal duties on “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”, a roaring arrangement of a song about domestic abuse, which is possessed of bleezin’ blind fury, both from Rachel’s venomous vocal delivery and Belinda’s burlesque and bluesy piano accompaniment. Rachel’s almost reluctant performance of Belinda O’Hooley’s heartbreaking “Whitethorn” remains as tense in live performance as it does on record. This has all the melancholy of a Thomas Hardy novel rolled into one song. Rachel needs our sympathy for the agony of going through the process of revealing this story, but my sympathy goes out to Belinda too, who had to write it. Niopha’s weeping violin accompaniment could not have been better played. Bridging the gap between the funereal atmosphere of “Whitethorn” and the ‘spring in your step’ joyous affair that is “Blackbird”, Rachel delivers the pulsating “Lull I”, whilst her band mates harmoniously hum in the background (if you know what I mean!) By the end of the first set, closing with Becky and Belinda’s vocal ‘duel at dawn’ that is “For Today I am a Boy”, the audience needs a break from the turbulent emotional roller coaster ride, yet fully aware of and prepared for more to come. “Felton Lonnin” opens the second half with the identical piano motif that opened the first one. If Belinda puts the band on their marks with the aid of a Steinway Grand, then Becky sets the pace with her extraordinary heels, tapping out the heartbeat that runs throughout the song. Songs from Northumberland that utilise Rachel’s inimitable rich vernacular are fast becoming her trademark, and none as clear and concise as this Johnny Handle arrangement of a traditional song from the North East. When I first saw the band perform “Blue’s Gaen out o’the Fashion”, with its intricate arrangement and sudden tempo changes, I likened it to an erratic set of jigs and reels but with voices and clogs. My mind has not changed on this, but after a number of subsequent re-visits, it all sounds so much more polished now and invites an irresistible audience response with the chorus of ‘when the tide comes in’. When I saw the band in York last year, it was encouraging to see Nic Jones in the audience. Having artists of that stature taking an interest must be enormously encouraging for the band. I cannot imagine how Rachel Unthank and the Winterset must have felt tonight, once the whisper went around the room that Robert Wyatt, composer of “Sea Song”, which appears on the new album, was in the audience. Hearing that song once again but with the knowledge that its author was in the room, sent goose bumps to where goose bumps ain’t been before. Although it is easy to single out each individual member of the band for their own unique contribution to the band’s current repertoire, such as the delightful “Lull IV: Can’t Stop It Raining” featuring Rachel on ukulele (apparently, all the Unthank family got one each for Christmas), or Becky’s reading of “My Donald”, it is in the unity of the group where the richness comes flooding out either vocally on “Ma Bonny Lad” or instrumentally, once again on “My Donald”, where classical influences would be impossible to ignore. A better finisher than “Fareweel Regality” doesn’t exist. The band has claimed this as their own anthem, which is impossible to shake off long after the show finishes. I personally don’t think there is a better example of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset as a completely unified band as when they perform this song. The perfect finisher. I had a few words with Robert Wyatt after the show and I asked him one predictable question, although I could probably have asked him several hundred and that was what he thought of the band’s treatment of his song, to which he replied “I never came here to see them do my song, I came here because they’re wonderful. They are like the morning dew that hasn’t steamed off yet, they are new and fresh and I really don’t think they know how good they are”. I tend not to argue with a genius.