Lee Fisher loses his heart to The Unthanks (again) as the North East band offer up a triumphant hometown show
By Lee Fisher
Hometown gigs from The Unthanks always have a special vibe, but this show was a long time coming (for the band and for us) and the room positively hummed with expectation before the 11-piece incarnation appeared on stage. Kicking off with three tracks from an as-yet unreleased album is a bold move, but one that definitely paid off. The last of the three, Sandgate Dandling Song, has already appeared as a Rachel Unthank solo vocal track on the Stick In The Wheel-recorded From Here Volume 2 album, but the full band version was a lush and powerful affair. Coming at the end of a two-week tour, any nerves the band had after a long period of inactivity were fully banished and – complemented by some really impressive production flourishes – they’ve rarely sounded or looked better.
I make no secret of the fact that a well-chosen harmony or a piercing trumpet line can ruin my make-up, but I normally make it as far as Mount The Air before losing my shit at an Unthanks show; tonight – perhaps because it had been so long since I’d seen them – King Of Rome broke me, its plaintive melody and unquenchable optimism getting me right in the feels halfway through the first set. Ironically, King Of Rome is also one of a couple of songs tonight that I thought had a slightly fussy arrangement, but that didn’t matter too much as I sobbed into my beer.
The set was perfectly constructed – a handful of new songs, some deep cuts (including a stunning A Whistling Woman from the Maxine Peake-penned play about Lillian Bilocca) and the hits – Magpie, Lucky Gilchrist and the like. The sisters were on especially charming and chatty form and the whole thing was magical. They finished the second set with Mount The Air (yes, dear reader, they got me again) and I remain in awe of this song: in some ways it’s Adrian McNally’s prog leanings in full effect – it’s long, it has movements and glorious (although not overblown) orchestration and it climaxes with a clog dancing solo. But it absolutely fucking soars, the sisters totally inhabit it but it’s also all about Lizzie Jones on trumpet, for some years now the band’s magnificent secret weapon, who played her heart out tonight. They encored with a beautiful Farewell Regality (the finest non-Christmas Christmas record there is) and a reprise of the audience singalong to new album title track Sorrows Away that had me grumbling along despite myself. The Unthanks have been slaying me for nearly two decades now, in a number of incarnations, and it’s a delight to confirm that the old cliché about absence holds very true. They absolutely have my heart.