Live review: The Unthanks @ Southbank Centre

Two weeks of studying mud and any MSc man would be wishing for something a little more, well, MA. So with a little consciousness-raising in mind I braved the awful 19:23 plodder to Waterloo to check out ‘Songs from the Shipyards’, a touring production by the Northumbrian folk band The Unthanks. Combining a live performance with archive footage of the shipbuilding industry on the Tyne, the project aims to trace the rise and fall of a lovably grimy industry back in the days when hitting things with hammers all day was still a viable career option.

The performance opened with five dreadfully jarring minutes of a cartoon set to a prerecorded version of ‘Last’; listening to an Unthanks CD whilst ten feet from the actual Unthanks was a little unnerving, particularly when bookended with the NOW AVAILABLE IN ALL GOOD RECORD STORES announcement more typical of pap like X Factor than a folk gig. Hoping that the artistic director’s psilocybin trip would soon wear off, we pressed on. The rather anodyne archive footage notwithstanding, it was clear that people were here for the tunes. Now, the Unthanks are big-ticket. Folk superstars. One mention of them in any provincial folk club and a hundred beardy men swoon into their Yorkshire Tea, and it’s easy to see why. The two Unthank sisters, Becky and Rachel, would have to gargle tacks to sound anything other than mesmerising. Their harmony has an almost elemental quality; a North Sea storm, all bladderwrack and gale, poured into two little gullets. The accompaniment, touchingly included in the credits as ‘the Unthanks’, had a high standard to match and did so without trouble. Niopha Keegan added a voice which is by turns powerful and achingly tender, particularly at the edges of her range, well underpinned by Chris Price’s rich bass. Keegan and Price joined Adrian McNally in the instrumentation with Keegan’s fiddle of particular note, an opinion totally unconnected to the author’s lolling goggle-eyed at the anagrammic beauty.

Even my at times streptococcal accompaniment failed to dampen what was a technically and artistically outstanding performance. The questions over the performance were rather more existential than musical. The vibrancy of folk is, or should be, in its folk character; the aural transmission of songs as part of people’s daily lives. There’s something profoundly distressing when the cherry-picking of pointedly demotic historical motifs- shipyards, brass bands, or the like- by professional musicians is presented to us as ‘folk’; something to pay your £8.50 for, sit through quietly, and buy the T-shirt. The most classic moment was when the great leering boil of Margaret Thatcher’s face appeared on the screen and a hundred ‘Grim Up North London’ types obligingly booed and hissed under their flat caps. The high irony is that when the Big Bang banged, these men and women were undoubtedly the little darling atoms she shot up from obscurity in the regions into the metropolitan elite. The shipyards, coal mines, the farms and the fields of their forebears are still their heritage, as they are for all folkies, polenta-munching or no; but when the last remnants of these places and communities are being bulldozed by the fouler heirs of Thatcher, us folkies sit in comfortable concert halls craning our comfortable ears to comfortable old tunes. This is folk as ossification, abstraction. And it hurts.

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