This weekend’s gig: Rachel Unthank and The Winterset, at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital Theatre. “People ask us if ‘Unthank’ is our stage name,” said Rachel. “Who’d choose a name like ‘Unthank’?” Personally, it reminds me of Scotland;* but the Unthank family are Northumbrian. Rachel and her sister Becky share the major vocal parts, with a piano and another musician behind them.
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of folk; but then, I don’t really agree with the concept of genre to start with. And, to start with, it was a little avant-garde: slow, not really rhythmic at all, but relying on the beauty of the sisters’ voices, the pianist darting from one end of the keyboard to the other and occasionally reaching inside the piano’s innards to pluck its strings directly. We were a little distracted by a woman just in front of us in the audience, who had decided that the quiet opening was the ideal time to take a loud phone call. “Don’t you shush me!” she said, harshly, to anybody who complained, as she pushed her way out of the row. “MY SON is more important than YOUR HEARING”. I was sorely tempted to mutter “Oh no he isn’t” sotto voce, but the rude bint would probably have tried to lamp me one. Fortunately, she was soon gone.
The gig continued, with songs getting a little more up-tempo, but always with the slight flexibility implied by the lack of percussion. If the band needed percussion, they provided it with their feet; but its lack gave them the freedom to explore, to work in free time without any constricting structures. They seemed to be able to soar at will with their voices; and Rachel stood with her hands spread and moving across her lap, as if she was consciously grasping the music with them and guiding herself.
I must have been enjoying it, because I even joined in with the audience participation sections, something I’m normally loath to do, and despite barely being able to carry a tune. Not that it matters when you’re in the middle of an audience; but still. After a rousing and catchy midwinter song** about the Allendale new year fire ceremony, they finished up with all four of the band, together a capella, singing a Shetland song with lyrics in Norn.*** I couldn’t make out the words from the sound, but the sound was beautiful enough to not need anything more.
* One of my favourite novels is Alasdair Gray’s classic Lanark, largely set in a city called Unthank.
** So catchy the chorus is still stuck in my head three days later.
*** The strand of the Nordic languages spoken in Shetland until the 19th century, similar to Faroese and some dialects of Norwegian