What a heroine and what a tribute. Moonlighting from her band, Rachel Unthank joined another North-eastern artist, Paul Smith, for a short tour, which our Andrew Curry caught at the Bush Theatre in London. The heroine? Linda Thompson, once famously described by Time magazine as 'maybe rock's best woman singer'. Read on for my headline's context.
Also worth mentioning for the diary: the Unthanks will mark the re-release of their three albums with intriguing day-long events, fearuring concerts, participatory events, a Q&A and guest appearances, at the Sage in Gateshead on Sept 9 and back in London at the Barbican on Sept 10. Details here for the Sage or at this link for the Barbican ...
You have to admire the Unthanks. They just love making music, and their career is littered with interesting side projects such as the many Diversions, performing the music of Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake’s mum Molly and others.
Rachel Unthank’s current side project is Unthank:Smith, a two-header with the Maximo Park singer Paul Smith. If that sounds like an unlikely combination, they bonded at a gig over a shared love of the North-eastern folksingers the Wilson Family and grunge music. The record, Nowhere and Everywhere, produced by David Brewis of Field Music (his brother and fellow-member, Peter, was also in Futureheads) at his Sunderland studio, was recorded five years ago but released earlier this year.
From left to right: Faye McCalman, Alex Neilson, Rachel Unthank, and Rory Haye. Photo: Andrew Curry
It’s a project that is, broadly, about exploring the music and the stories of the North East, and they have just taken it round England on a short tour. On stage they are joined at different times by the drummer and percussionist Alex Neilson, Faye McCalman, on clarinet and some saxophone, who both play on the record, and Rory Haye on bass.
Some of these songs are traditional, such as Captain Bover, about a notorious North East press gang, or the long ballad Lord Bateman, which closed the main part of the set.
There are nods to other singers, such as a version of the Wilson Family’s Horumarye, in a version that makes you feel the wind blowing across the moors. Lal Waterson’s Red Wine Promises is introduced with a self-deprecating story from Rachel about a drunken university night out.
Other songs take existing words and add new tunes to them. O Mary Will You Go was written by Teesside poet Richard Watson (who may, on the strength of the story, have been reworking a Burns lyric). The original tune has been lost, and Smith has written a new one. What Maks Makems is a Tom Pickard poem that celebrates Sunderland’s shipbuilding tradition, again with a tune from Smith. You wait for ages for a song about the yards on the Wear, and then two come along at once.
There are also a couple of originals in the set - Robert Kay was written by Smith, who is from Teesside, about the area’s World War I dead, Seven Tears by Unthank in the long tradition of folk songs about seals and humans.
The sound here is very much in the folk tradition, as exemplified by a capella numbers like Captain Bover and The King. But when all five of the band are on stage, the sound takes on an edgy, atmospheric mood, swirling around the lyric. The live version of The Natural Urge, for example, sounded genuinely strange as it cut loose from its arrangement on the record.
There are occasional nods to the Unthanks. Rachel announces that she’s going to tell a joke between numbers by saying that “in my other band I’m not allowed to tell jokes”, and afterwards you can see why.
As they come to the end of the set, she explains that she’s always loved folk-rock, and if she were ever on Stars in Their Eyes she would be Linda Thompson. Paul Smith says he wishes he had Richard Thompson’s fingers. But the band kicks in with a strong version of I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight to close out the night.
Bush Hall, in west London, is a perfect venue for this kind of performance. It’s an old Edwardian music hall that has seen service in its time as a pool hall and a bingo club, but is listed because of its fine period interior. It creates a real sense of intimacy between the band and the audience.
Alex Neilson and Rory Haye also opened the show, playing as Neilsen’s side project Alex Rex. (For a moment I misheard, and thought they were named after Alex Rae, the midfielder who drove the fine Sunderland side of the 1990s.) They were, literally, bass and drums. They started with an a capella song and then went into a piece that sounded like a cross between John Otway and the Velvet Underground. The chorus included the memorable Tim Buckley-esque stanza,
I used up all my talent/ Before it used up me
I’m just a shipwreck/ looking for the sea.
Their other material included a song about cowards and one that was drily introduced as “an incel classic”. McCalman, who mostly played clarinet with Unthank:Smith, joined them on saxophone for a couple of numbers.
Their sound of Alex Rex was utterly distinctive and almost categorisable. They are never going to be rich or famous for their music. But I was glad I’d seen them and hope they keep on doing what they are doing.