Despite their modest air and down-to-earth nature, folk singer sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank have never had any trouble captivating an audience. Whether they are performing at a venue that can hold thousands such as the Royal Albert Hall, or even somewhere more intimate like The Tolbooth, their haunting melodies and songs about love and loss continue to enthral their listeners.
The group made no mention of their recent win at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where they collected the award for Best Album, instead sipping on liquorice tea and chatting to the audience about pakora between songs. They performed material from their winning album Mount the Air, as well as a mix of older songs from the past ten years that the group has been together. Becky and Rachel were joined on stage by Adrian McNally (also Rachel’s husband), Niopha Keegan and Chris Price, all lending their vocal and instrumental talents to these traditional folk tunes.
The sisters hail from Northumbria, and this is very much reflected in the traditional English folk songs that they perform, which tell stories of the shipyards and past wars, transporting the audience back to a forgotten time. Most stunning of all is an acapella song called Magpie, which simply features the vocals of the sisters and Niopha, which all weave together in perfect harmony.
However, not all of their songs have their roots in the past. A new addition was their Hymn for Syria, its political message all too relevant in these troubled times. The piece was composed in collaboration with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and is just one of many projects that the group have undertaken over the past few years. The two sisters featured on Sting’s latest album The Last Ship, and they have created their own festival, Home Gathering in Newcastle, which is now in its second year.
Despite all of these happenings, the Unthanks have managed to keep their feet firmly on the ground and focus on the music that has brought them their success. They finished their set with a rendition of Canny Hobbie Elliot, one of their older songs which is accompanied by some spectacular clog dancing. The group are clearly passionate about the traditions and customs that lie with the folk music that they perform, and the areas in which their songs come from.
With many bands, the rise in their success will inevitably act as a barrier between them and their supporters. This has never been the case with the Unthanks – they made the time to talk to their fans and take selfies after the show, and they were the ones selling their own CDs. It is this friendly atmosphere, coupled with their sorrowful tunes, that makes the Unthanks an absolute joy to see live.