Monday, December 01, 2008

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury, Sunday 29th November.

What a treat! I'd heard their version of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" (and read an interview in The Wire wherein he approved heartily of it), and one other song, but that's it. The fact they'd won some BBC Folk award (as advertised on the poster I saw in Canterbury Wholefoods window) actually made me less inclined to see them, suggesting something 'safe' and ultimately a bit dull. But no, they were almost certainly the best thing I've seen all year (bar Orchestra Baoabab, who are on a completely different scale).

We got the "Sea Song" of course (sung by Rachel's sister Becky, who also gave us a haunting rendition of Nick Drake's "River Man"). But there was so much else going on with this group. The opener, "I Wish I Were a Maid Again" was sung by Rachel in such a way as to be riveting, Becky delivering chilling harmonies, Niopha Keegan playing accordion and Stef Conner hammering out occasional tone clusters on the grand piano, between playing directly on the strings with her hands. We then got a variety of Northumbrian folksongs, cheery banter, Rachel and Becky pulling off some pretty incredible clog dancing, a medley of sea shanties they learned off their Dad, Niopha (usually playing fiddle) singing something in Irish Gaelic, a couple of songs by a former member (Belinda O'Hooley) called "Blackbird" and "Whitethorn".

Rachel and Niopha, elsewhere
Rachel and Niopha, elsewhere

They finished with a rousing "Fareweel Regality" (getting us to sing along on the "...away from Hexamshire" bit) which nearly had me in tears. The encore was even more moving - the four of them singing a beautiful lullaby in an ancient Scandinavian language called Norn once spoken on the northernmost of the Shetland Isles.

No "Bonny at Morn" or "Cruel Sister", but then, not having heard or seen their two albums, I didn't even know they did those. I'll be seeing them again, almost certainly. What lovely people! They somehow managed to turn the usually-stuff Gulbenkian into their front room! I almost danced home, I was so elated by this one...


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