Unthanks were playing at The Queen’s Hall last week, supported by Trembling Bells. Trembling Bells looked and sounded like folkie rockers from the late sixties/early seventies. Their lead singer, Lavinia Blackwall was wearing a long floral dress with long sleeves and had long hair parted in the middle - the kind of cut-down Victorian style of the time. She had a wonderful voice - very pure in the upper notes, very rich in the lower ones, reminiscent of Sandy Denny‘s. They did some folky numbers and then moved to something more discordant, reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer. Lavinia Blackwall’s voice catches your breath - this recording doesn't do it justice.
Their set was short, and then Unthanks came on. Rachel and Rebecca Unthanks did most of the singing, other women played cellos, fiddles, trumpets, and a bloke played the piano. The women were wearing knee-length print dresses, Rachel Unthanks had 8 months of baby in her belly, they bantered with each other and the whole feeling was of a family having a sing-song in the parlour. The Unthanks women’s voices are quite unlike the grand soaring of Lavinia Blackwall. Rebecca’s is breathy, Rachel’s rather childish in diction and their range isn’t wide. Harmonising together they are extraordinary - poignant, heart-breaking. For a couple of songs Rebecca did a clog dance, and they managed to be both amateur in the proper sense - conveying a love what they do - and polished. They did a mixture of traditional and modern folk songs, with a lot of piano and trumpet and stringes, and were brilliant. They didn’t sing the songs I already thought my favourites like The Testament of Patience Kershaw and Here’s the Tender Coming - the songs were all unfamiliar - but I enjoyed every song. They sound so fresh.
I’m listening to Gan to the Kye and both the song and the way they sing it give me the shivers:-
(The pictures on this video are totally wrong - I couldn‘t find another good recording.)
Gan to the kye wi' me;
Over the moor and thro' the grove,
I'll sing ditties to thee:
Cushie, thy pet, is lowing
Around her poor firstling's shed,
Tears in her eyes are flowing,
Because little Colly lies dead.
Gan to the kye, etc
All the fine herd of cattle
Thy vigilant sire possest,
After his fall in battle
By rebel chieftains were prest:
Kine now is all our property,
Left by thy father's will;
Yet if we nurse it watchfully,
We may win geer enow still.
Gan to the kye, etc
A song about loss after a battle like The Flowers of the Forest - but the cattle remain and are to be cherished and increased - life going on - an astonishing song. It was new to me.
Women singing beautifully - solo or in harmony - is one of the finest sounds in the world.