Review: The Unthanks at St Jamess Church, Piccadilly, London (2 December 2011)

Rachel 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 years gigs consisting entirely of material written by two well-regarded contemporary songwriters Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt but its certainly apt, to say the least. The two concerts at Londons 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. Pauls Cathedral, but he is also credited with the rebuilding of many of Londons churches after the Great Fire in 1666. In addition to this more high profile work, he was the architect of St Jamess 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.

Its hard to imagine a better venue than St Jamess Church for music as intricate and absorbing as that of Wyatt and Hegarty; the focus of much of Wrens ecclesiastical architecture was to provide space for its congregations. St Jamess 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 Beckys voices, both solo and together, would, I feel, sound good in pretty much any location but then, Im 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 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.

This might make it seem that the event was a highbrow affair requiring a musicologists training in order to make sense of it, but such an impression couldnt be further from the truth. The songs themselves are strong enough and timeless enough to speak for themselves and Rachel, Becky and pianist Adrian McNallys 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 Keegans 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 nights 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.

Setlist:

Songs of Antony and the Johnsons:
01 You Are The Treasure > Another World
02 Bird Gerhl
03 Man Is The Baby
04 You Are My Sister
05 Paddys Gone
06 River Of Sorrow
07 For Today I Am A Boy
08 Spiralling

[Interval]

Songs of Robert Wyatt:
09 Stay Tuned
10 Dondestan
11 Lisp Service
12 Cuckoo Madame
13 Free Will And Testament
14 Alifib/Alife
15 Lullaby For Hamza
16 Soup Song
17 Out of the Blue
18 Sea Song
19 Forest

Encore:
20 Tar Barrel In Dale