Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Live Review | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Sitting in a bar directly opposite the steps leading up to the imposing City Hall in Sheffield, on a particularly cold December evening, half listening to goodness-knows-what over the in-house sound system and sipping a cold Guinness, I idled away half an hour, having arrived in the city earlier than expected.  I could quite easily have passed for a down-and-out vagabond, with a scarf twisted around his neck and the collar on his great coat standing upright against his ears.  Settling deeper into my cosy seat, I took out a notebook and began to scribble.  You would have thought such winter warmery would have sufficiently disguised me, even from my own mother, but my anonymity was soon foiled by three familiar faces peering in through one of the large windows, silhouetted by the amber street lights outside.  They began waving manically in order to get my attention.  Rachel Unthank, her little sister Becky and Niopha Keegan, were just passing by, no doubt killing time before their gig and obviously recognised my receding hairline, forehead shining bright pink from the centre of the pub, a beacon to behold from the darkened Sheffield streets outside, wet with the continual overspill from nearby decorative fountains, which quickly turned to ice.  I waved back in a similarly excited fashion.  A few moments later, the three of them were sitting next to me in the pub, Rachel munching on a chocolate bar, the apparent Holy Grail of their quest which led them to leave the relative comfort and warmth of the Memorial Hall in the first place.  They declined to join me in a Guinness, saying “we have to run and get our frocks on”.  It was only a polite half-hearted offer on my part as I was familiar with their strict rules concerning drinking before a performance.  We did however have a few moments to catch up on things such as the bands’ current tour and in particular, their recent concert appearances supporting Ben Folds, together with their telly debut on Inside Out, a local North East magazine programme, which shows the Unthank siblings at home, around the kitchen table discussing song sources, the ‘whole name thing’ and what it’s like to be ‘thrust into the world of celebrity’.  “It took about nine days of filming to come up with that little piece” Rachel said, taking another bite from her chocolate bar “but it was so nice to have mum in it with us” she added.  Becky apologised to me.  “You’re going to hear all the same songs again tonight” she said, as if it bothered me in the least, quickly followed by “we’re working so hard on new material, I promise”.  This new material, presumably destined for the eagerly awaited third Rachel Unthank and the Winterset album, seems to be coming together and will no doubt make its appearance sometime in the New Year.  For now though, songs like “Felton Lonnin”, “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk” and “Fareweel Regality” continue to be an integral part of their set, and I have to say, I never tire of hearing them.  Delighted to be back in Sheffield once again, a city that holds particularly fond memories for Becky Unthank, who was accidentally punched in the face one night at The Leadmill, by a fist obviously destined for another, presumably more deserving face.  Each of the band members mingled with the audience in their usual approachable manner; there’s never the slightest hint that these girls have been touched by the red carpet nonsense at award ceremonies, or of hiding away in darkened green rooms backstage; they always seem to relish in the company of others.  Rachel told me they were going to play exceptionally well tonight as they felt they owed it to their audience, who may have been let down by some unfortunate tour date re-shuffling, due to the unexpected opportunity to tour with Ben Folds, an opportunity not to be missed.  The rescheduled date at the Memorial Hall tonight suffered very little from the changes as just about every seat in the house was taken.  At this stage in the band’s career, invitations to play with higher profile artists at some of the bigger and more established venues is not only good for each of the individual members of the band, who get to rub shoulders with their heroes, but also good for the bands’ reputation on the general music scene.  The invitation to support fellow Mercury Prize nominee Adele at her Roundhouse concert later this month, is of particular interest.  It makes perfect sense to me that a brilliant singer such as Adele, whose influences are equally shared between Etta James and The Spice Girls, would also love Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.  After a set from fellow North East based duo Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, who were invited by the band to join them on some of their current tour dates, the Winterset took their now familiar places on stage; Steph Connor seated to the left before her grand piano, Niopha Keegan dominating the right side of the stage with fiddle and accordion in tow, and the Unthank siblings centre stage for what felt like a potentially exciting performance before even a single note was struck, plucked or bowed.  The first note was eventually struck by Steph for the intriguing opening of Cyril Tawney’s “On a Monday Morning”, which features the voices of the three women who earlier in the evening were waving at me from outside a pub, each providing a verse and introducing three distinctly different voices.  There’s nothing rushed about the songs, in fact I would go as far to say they are deliberately paced at a slower tempo than you would expect.  This more recent development, especially in some of Becky’s delivery, adds that all important space to the songs, which in turn gives them depth.  “Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion” remains an audience favourite as it incorporates an infectious refrain that is easy to sing along to, as well as showcasing Rachel and Becky’s clog dancing credentials.  Niopha is the only member of the band who has yet to introduce dance steps to the mix, since newest member Steph Connor demonstrated her ‘crab dance’, which should be available on YouTube before too long.  And everyone thought she was a quiet girl.  Other highlights in the crescent-shaped Memorial Hall tonight included “My Donald”, which is one of the band’s most accomplished pieces in terms of arrangement, verging on classical composition, punctuated by Becky Unthank’s atmospheric retelling of Owen Hand’s classic song; the spooky “I Wish I Wish/Lull I”, which wouldn’t be out of place on a M. Night Shyamalan soundtrack and of course Robert Wyatt’s much discussed and widely loved “Sea Song”, respectfully performed by a band whose intuitive playing allows you to momentarily forget you are hearing just one piano, an accordion and metronomic high heels… and of course, a stunningly original voice.  With an encore of the beautiful “Unst Boat Song”, which like the opening song of the evening, incorporates shared responsibility in singing duties for the verses, we see the four members of the Winterset united in some harmony singing that could not be bettered.