THE UNTHANKS / TREMBLING BELLS @ O2 SHEPERD’S BUSH EMPIRE – 01/04/11

We arrived just after support band, Trembling Bells, had started. I had never heard them before and was treated to an interesting mix of styles – the first comparison that came to mind was Steeleye Span due to the electrified sound and the female vocal, then there were some rhythms reminiscent of Runrig. An unaccompanied vocal duet, shades of Americana, at one point I tried to identify where the electric violin was only to realise that it was actually the guitar – and then during the finale three dancers appeared flitting around the stage in medieval dress and performing in a Morris Dancing style, at one point they carried ‘heads’ on the top of crosses. All told, a very different experience from recent rock gigs!

After the usual on-stage rearrangements Rachel, Becky and band appeared on stage – initial lighting effects created an ethereal atmosphere and you could have heard the proverbial pin dropping in the packed venue – clearly the audience were keen not to miss a note or lyric.

The piano, string trio, trumpet, bass guitar and drums provided a wonderfully smooth and silky backing for the two sisters as they shared vocals. They each possess a clear and distinctive sound and it was a real pleasure for me to hear their lilting Northumbrian accents and rural language – how many times will London audiences have heard songs about ‘kye’? They were joined during the fourth track by Trembling Bells’ double bass player.

When I recognised the opening strains of ‘Lucky Gilchrist’ I was keen to hear the clog accompaniment but was surprised when Becky was the only one to perform in clogs whilst Rachel took a seat – afterwards she explained that being seven and a half months pregnant had made it necessary for her to take a more passive role on stage. My daughter said that she had noticed Rachel’s condition straight away – but I had completely missed it!

They next performed an unaccompanied vocal duet, without microphones, and it worked perfectly as even the bar staff went about their duties in silence. Another song had all the female musicians joining in on vocals, whilst during ‘Down At The Dockside’ one of the violin players undertook a solo vocal section, her voice providing a lovely counterpoint to Rachel and Becky’s distinctive sound.

Next came a song that has been used as part of a soundtrack for a film about the history of shipbuilding on The Tyne – ‘A Great Northern River.

Between numbers the sisters provided a wonderfully intimate dialogue, acknowledging that their songs were probably not too cheerful or uplifting when introducing ‘Canny Hobbie Elliot’ as a “cheerful song about adultery” – “well you did choose to come to an Unthank’s gig”! For me the choice of a so-called ‘prog rock’ number to close was the low-point of the gig – thankfully they did return for an encore – ‘Fareweeel Regality’ and ‘Blackbird’. A thoroughly relaxing evening which proved that a good night can been had at a gig without high energy rocking.

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