The Unthanks have long been one of the shining lights of modern British folk music. Performing together for around 8 years now, the Northumbrian duo have made the almost impossible step toward mainstream success, and have delighted many audiences with their haunting harmonies, and are never shy to leap into a new project.
Here, at the Milton Court Hall, they took the previously unknown works of Molly Drake, mother of legendary folk singer Nick, and showcased them to the world. Drake, a poet and composer, never sought to publish her works while she was alive, other than to play to her visiting friends.
In 2013, the Drake Family Estate released an album of old recordings of Molly singing her songs. Now, in 2017, The Unthanks have arranged a full album of their own interpretations of Drake’s music, which they performed in full at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The stage setup appeared to resemble Drake’s home, with lamps, living room chairs and a general sense of home. With a compact ensemble, comprising of violin, clarinet, piano and bass, there was much room for both Unthanks’ voices to manoeuvre, either in a duet or solo.
This backing was a natural fit for the settings of Drake’s work, although its limitations became clear midway through. Despite occasionally bringing moments of real beauty, it often felt like the Unthanks were ever so slightly trapped within their arrangements and instrumentation. While each arrangement and rewriting of a Molly Drake song had its own charm, together they began to slightly blend into one.
Molly Drake’s lyrics, always relatable, sometimes straightforward and often poignant, were one of the real stars of the show. The soft, balladic approach to each arrangement more often than not did justice to the words, and let them have space to breathe.
These songs were occasionally broken up by, but also sometimes contained, spoken word features by Drake’s daughter Gabrielle, herself an actress. At first these came disembodied, eloquently and confidently narrated over the music in recorded form. Later on however, Gabrielle appeared onstage, halting the music every now and then to recline and recite. Her pride shone through, and it would have been good to hear more of her speech over the music, rather than stopping the flow of the concert.
Set alongside their other work, you’re left with something ever so slightly less magical when hearing the Unthanks perform these songs. Of course, their use of harmonies are a joy, weaving in and out of line with each other; even then, however, it didn’t quite ring as strong as when they’re tackling a traditional tune, perhaps on top of a drone.
In fact, there was more joy to be had hearing the two sing songs alone. Both Rachel and Becky commanded the stage with their instantly recognisable voices – Rachel, with an almost childlike whisper, and Becky’s smokier, drawn out utterance. They are two of the best storytellers you could wish to hear, with words that undoubtedly rang with wisdom and truth.
In an encore, the Unthanks returned to perform a song by Molly’s son, ‘Riverman’. Though the music of Molly Drake was in no way inferior, the relief at hearing something a little different elevated the song to be a highlight – it was a fitting end to a concert that brought many pleasant moments, but fell just short of being a classic.