The Unthanks, Shepherd’s Bush Empire

I saw traditional folk band The Unthanks on Friday and, in short, I’m pleased I did. Two words best sum up the experience: charm and warmth. The band centres on two sisters who take turns and often join up in providing lead vocals, but this is very much an ensemble affair: no one member of the nine strong cast predominates.

Instead, you have a rich, expertly blended symphony of sound, with washes of vocal overlaid on piano, strings, pattering drums and trumpet. And, on a couple of songs: clogs. If there was one thing The Unthanks could lose, it would be the clogs. But anyway. This is sorrowful music to soothe the soul – tales of heartache, death, and manual labour.

The charm comes from the Unthank sisters’ patter between the songs. They were wonderfully self-deprecating, gently funny, and quite simply pleased to be playing the music they love to an appreciative audience. I loved the way the frontwomen would step to one side to allow full appreciation of a violin or trumpet solo, and there was a wonderful moment when they sang out into the audience without microphones. It felt very human, and helped by the Shepherd’s Bush Empire being small enough to aid the feeling of intimacy.

It was interesting (to me at least) that the band covered a Tom Waits song – No One Knows I’m Gone from Waits’ 2002 album, Alice (sample lyric: ‘the rain makes such a lovely sound, to those who’re six feet underground’). I usually think of Waits as gruff and angular, but listening to even one of his crunchiest records – Bone Machine, say – reminded me that his default setting is a warm and soulful wheeze that makes him a perfect choice for a band like The Unthanks to cover.

Admittedly, the rocker in me did hunger for an occasional passage of bombast or an explosion of vocal unrestraint (a la Mr Waits: these two artists would be represented as a Venn diagram with only a modest overlap, after all) but, frankly, that’s not a game The Unthanks are interested in playing. As one band member remarked during the gig: The Unthanks are all about the slow, sad songs, and when they’re this good at playing them, it’s hard to complain.

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