Review: The Unthanks – Diversions Vol. 5 – Live and Unaccompanied

From the early days of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset to their configuration as The Unthanks, one of the constants has been the fiddle and vocals of Niopha Keegan. On Diversions Vol. 5 – Live and Unaccompanied, she joins Becky and Rachel as the third voice in a trio focused on the spectral qualities of three unaccompanied voices singing live to an audience.

The Unthanks have never been ones to shy away from a challenge, having covered everyone from Robert Wyatt to King Crimson, yet there is a glory in being able to hear their voices completely unadorned. Building from one to three voices in a matter of notes, ‘One By One’, establishes a high bar. The song, a tale of longing and loneliness, haunts, “We go walking out at night, as we wander through the grass, we can hear each other pass, but we’re far apart, far apart in the dark.”

The traditional, ‘I’m Weary Of Lying Alone’, with the voice of Niopha Keegan singing the lead, establishes the pain of being alone. “If I got a comely young man who would take me without fortune and make me a wife of his very own. For the truth is, I’ll say is, I’ll die in despair If I lie any longer alone, alone.” However, the mood isn’t always one of despair, ‘Geordie Wedding Set’ is rollicking collection, incorporating the traditional ‘We’ll Aal Be Wed In Our Auld Claiths’ and ‘Hi Canny Man’.

Clocking in at just over a minute, ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dick’ from Here’s The Tender Coming is a song of disappointment three times over. From selling papers for half their worth to courting a girl but only getting disappointing kisses to the final disaster, “Where’ve yer bin Dick? Down at library, I’ve been waiting for a book. Got no pictures, couldn’t read it. Were it worth it? No, it weren’t.”

Voices pure and harmonies a plenty, this is never clearer than on ‘We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed’. There are but three singers, yet the clarity of the lines suggests more. Finally there is ‘Farewell Shanty’, where the voices of Becky, Rachel and Niopha are joined by the entire audience to create an exquisite closing track.

The wonder of the Unthanks is why these albums are called diversions. After all, Diversions No. 5 – Live And Unaccompanied is a main course worth savouring in its own right.

Source: Album | The Unthanks – Diversions Vol. 5 – Live and Unaccompanied

The Unthanks – unaccompanied and inspiring 

Live at Leeds Left Bank 23rd May 2019 

The Unthanks’ voices are a wonderful thing and tonight’s crowd sat in rapt awe. In the resonant acoustics of an old church, the harmonies acquired additional depths. The combination of the flat Northern vocals and close harmony work makes for a captivating ninety minutes and that may come as a surprise to some as they had no instrumental accompaniment at all.

The Unthanks never play it safe and their career is a list of projects – whether it is musical theatre, songs to a theme, collaborating, working with a brass band or digging up historical pieces. Tonight is not only a solo piece but two of the trio having one year-old babies, probably quite a challenge against sleep deprivation and reaching the stage with clean clothes. The Unthanks tonight are sisters Rachel and Becky plus Niopa, the newer member.

They worked their way through a dazzling mix of material. The lovely Weary From Sleeping Alone, Doo Wop stylings of Honey Bee, a grisly ghost story inspired by Australian bush ballads. Chat between songs is always good humoured and suggests a real enjoyment in performing. Babies are mentioned a couple of times and a small run of lullabies featured. The Sandgate Dandling Song is a highlight and one that turns up in different shapes in other places (even one of Cilla Black’s hits). Its fusion of pride, love and desperate sadness makes it perfect for The Unthanks. The very loveliest harmony work is with the well-known Magpie and the audience melts.

The encore sees the sparky music-hall figure of their support act join the trio for a gospel song. Tim Dalling helps it swing hard before we are quietly eased out with Underneath The Blackthorn Tree and it’s hypnotic “the wind, the wind, the rain the rain”. It has been an almost religious experience with an awe-struck audience and focussed attention on beautiful sounds and thoughts. Always different, always fascinating, The Unthanks are an act that carries the very best of the folk tradition into the twenty-first century, alive and relevant.


Source: The Unthanks – unaccompanied and inspiring – Vanguard Online