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Live: The Unthanks at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London (2 December 2011)

December 2, 2011

“Choose an author as you choose a friend”

The Unthanks: Diversions Vol. 1 - The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The JohnsonsRachel and Becky of The Unthanks may or may not have been aware of that piece of sage advice by Sir Christopher Wren when they peformed last year’s gigs consisting entirely of material written by two well-regarded contemporary songwriters – Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt – but it’s certainly apt, to say the least. The two concerts at London’s Union Chapel were recorded and a live album, Diversions Vol. 1 – The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, was released just a few days ago.

Wren, of course, is probably best known as the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but he is also credited with the rebuilding of many of London’s churches after the Great Fire in 1666. In addition to this more high profile work, he was the architect of St James’s Church in Piccadilly, where The Unthanks played the opening gig of their current tour of the UK and Ireland in support of the new album.

It’s hard to imagine a better venue than St James’s Church for music as intricate and absorbing as that of Wyatt and Hegarty; the focus of much of Wren’s ecclesiastical architecture was to provide space for its congregations. St James’s is no exception: the almost non-existent chancel and lack of choir stalls help create an almost domestic sense of scale, while the high, barrel-vaulted ceiling contributes in no small way to an acoustically balanced space which allows the full range of the human voice to shine through. And for a group like The Unthanks, ‘known for their eclectic approach in combining traditional English folk with other musical genres‘ [Wikipedia], it was an ideal setting. Rachel and Becky’s voices, both solo and together, would, I feel, sound good in pretty much any location – but then, I’m biased! Their distinctive sound ranges from intimate whisper to full-throated harmony and such a dynamic range was well-suited to both the church and the material.

The Unthanks at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London (2 December 2011)

The musicians, too, brought a broad palette of tone colours, yet the complexities and details of the sound never overshadowed Rachel and Becky. Indeed, I was left with the strong impression of a band that knew its own individual and collective strengths and were comfortable enough with each other and the music for them to be able to step away from the stage in various combinations – including Rachel and Becky – and allow the arrangements to create detailed, yet never fragmented, settings for the songs.

Of course, a band of some ten musicians, although probably a logistical nightmare for the tour manager, certainly unlocks the potential to experiment with arrangements and while it may displease some fans of Hegarty and Wyatt as well as the more purist fan of folk music, to me it makes perfect sense. From my perspective, I think it could be argued that folk music has existed as long as humans have made music, whether vocal or instrumental. It draws from its environments and communities at the same time as it contributes to those same cultures from which it emerges. So music which simultaneously draws on its own historical traditions and the songbooks of other, contemporary songwriters both consolidates itself and extends its own canon for the future.

The Unthanks at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London (2 December 2011)

This might make it seem that the event was a highbrow affair requiring a musicologist’s training in order to make sense of it, but such an impression couldn’t be further from the truth. The songs themselves are strong enough and timeless enough to speak for themselves and Rachel, Becky and pianist Adrian McNally’s onstage banter both entertained the audience and kept the music grounded. In passing, it was a pleasure to see so many talented women in the band: from Niopha Keegan’s violin and accordion contributions, to Lizzie Jones’ trumpet and the almost telepathic interplay between Anna Jenkins (violin) and Jo Silverston (cello) if ever there was a compelling argument that music is as much a feminist issue as it is about entertainment, then last night’s performance effortlessly confirmed it with every note played and sung by these talented and accomplished women. But regardless of your thoughts about feminism and the politics of music, on the evidence of last night the current incarnation of The Unthanks is in fine form and looks set to play up a storm over the next couple of weeks and – if you can find a ticket – well worth hearing.

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Setlist:

Songs of Antony and the Johnsons:
You Are The Treasure > Another World
Bird Gerhl
Man Is The Baby
You Are My Sister
Paddy’s Gone
River Of Sorrow
For Today I Am A Boy
Spiralling

[Interval]

Songs of Robert Wyatt:
Stay Tuned
Dondestan
Lisp Service
Cuckoo Madame
Free Will And Testament
Alifib/Alife
Lullaby For Hamza
Soup Song
Out of the Blue
Sea Song
Forest
Encore: Tar Barrel In Dale

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