Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset have been doing a bit of global trotting in recent months; earlier in the year they toured Australia and more recently the United States, with a handful of shows in Europe as well.  Seeing them back in Yorkshire is always a pleasure.  The last time we saw the band here at the National Centre for Early Music in York, the band was very different indeed. Since then we’ve seen the departure of two remarkable musicians Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley and some thought that this just might see our Unthank siblings back as a family duo once again.  Not so.  Firstly Niopha Keegan arrived on the scene, fresh from Newcastle’s prestigious folk music degree course, which seems to be turfing out talent quicker than Simon Cowell turfs out dross, and who to my knowledge has never attempted to replace Jackie, but rather add another dimension to the group, which she has done supremely well.  Just as we were getting up from the blow of losing Jackie, we long-term fans of the band watched from the wings as Belinda departed, with outstretched arms and a communal pleading for her not to go.  Once again, the band has proved to be bigger than its component parts and from out of nowhere, along came the amazing Steph Connor, who has once again turned the sound of the band on its head, introducing the Haynes manual of how to play piano without touching a single key.  Pretty exciting for those of us who don’t mind a bit of musical exploration.  Kicking off tonight with “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” followed by “Felton Lonnin”, two songs from the outstanding album The Bairns, the band soon got into their familiar stride at this sell out concert, and held the attention of the audience for the next hour or so.  These two songs have been seen on TV or heard on the wireless recently as the two musical contributions to both the BBC Folk Awards, where the band picked up the Horizon Award, and also the song they performed at the Mercury Prize Awards Ceremony.  The highlight for me tonight came next, when the band performed their newly re-vamped, re-shaped and re-modified “I Wish/Lull I” couplet, which would presumably have Steve Lawrence scratching his head thinking “is that the one I gave ‘em?”  With some ingeniously discordant sounds emitting from beneath the grand piano lid, which almost saw Steph actually climbing into the piano, not unlike you imagine Tori Amos would, after accidentally swallowing the Philip Glass songbook, the song cycle took on a different identity altogether, and highlighted Steph’s adventurous spirit clearly.  If all this sounds weird or ridiculous, then my advice would be to close your eyes and just listen to the results, which appears to have transformed the two songs into a tonal poem of pure beauty.  I was pleased to hear Niopha Keegan sing unaccompanied tonight.  In “I’m Weary from Lying Alone” we bear witness to the fact that Niopha has a wonderful voice, a voice that appears to have no problem in holding the listeners’ attention throughout.  Sung in both Gaelic and English, Niopha showcases another side to her considerable talents and once again confirms that she is very much an integral part of the Winterset collective.  The constant whining of the folk police on the ever tedious and completely redundant notion of what is and what is not folk music, in all probability affects these women like H2o affects a duck’s back.  With this group, it will always be about exploring the boundaries of either traditional or contemporary song, both of which all four of these musicians and singers treat with equal respect, as well as exploring their musicianship and their tireless search for new sounds. Strange things sometimes happen in music.  Whenever I think of “With a Little Help from My Friends” I can only think in terms of Joe Cocker, not the Fabs.  Same thing happens these days with Robert Wyatt’s timeless “Sea Song”, which Becky Unthank has claimed as her own, without actually knowing it.  So good is this version that I doubt Mr Wyatt would have any compunction in handing it over forthwith.  If anyone is still in any doubt as to the musical cohesion of this quartet, look no further than to their outstanding arrangement of Owen Hands. “My Donald”, which is to all intents and purposes a contemporary whaling song incorporating a Classical arrangement.  It certainly served as one of the outstanding performances in tonight’s show.  Concluding with their regular finisher “Fareweel Regality”, Rachel, Becky, Niopha and Steph once again raised the roof with a finisher that still sends a shiver.  It would be nice to hear another song enter their repertoire with an equally uplifting theme, but in all honesty, this song is a very hard act to follow.  Jonny Kearney is a young singer-songwriter from Hexham in Northumberland who was recently awarded a bursary after winning the inaugural Alan Hull singer-songwriter award.  Upon winning this award, whose panel of judges included the likes of Kathryn Tickell, Ray Jackson and Alan’s widow Pat, Jonny has had the good sense to set out and do as many gigs as possible before recording any material.  In a world of instant success and self-produced records, it’s encouraging to see a musician doing what is most important in the development of a creative mind, that of playing live as much as possible in order to truly discover his own personal direction and style.  Tonight Jonny opened for Rachel Unthank and the Winterset for the second time in succession (the previous night being in Durham) and was joined by fellow Newcastle Uni Folk Degree student Lucy Farrell on fiddle and musical saw and Dan Rogers on double bass who has just recently left Leeds College of Music.  With a repertoire comprising all his own songs, Jonny faced a more formal gathering at the NCEM than he is probably used to and performed a handful of songs starting with “Dixon Street”, a song about a street in Gateshead with alleged ‘dogs the size of ponies’ and ‘paranoid people’.  On “Bad Man”, Jonny is joined by Lucy Farrell on the saw, an instrument that is beginning to make its return as a perfectly cool accompanying instrument, with interesting results.  Based on a true story, “Ticket Man” considers the wishful fate of one of our beloved traffic wardens, who gets his just desserts in the end.  Having landed myself on the wrong side of a ticket in recent months, the song brought out in me a vengeful side I didn’t know I was capable of.  Concluding with what Jonny likes to refer to as a ‘little ditty’ called “Stand Up Show”, Jonny and Lucy sparred vocally whilst Dan provided a driving bass line throughout.  Proof that Newcastle continues to produce new and exciting singers and musicians, all of whom seem to be getting that much younger.