Music review: The Unthanks

The Unthanks
The Unthanks
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How to make public performance from essentially private poetry and song? The Unthanks – singing Geordie sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and pianist Adrian McNally, here with a café-orchestra accompaniment from bassist Chris Price, violinist Niopha Keegan and Faye MacCalman on clarinet and saxophone – have risen to the challenge by turning their distinctively ethereal Tyneside melancholia on songs and poetry written and home-recorded by a mother in the 1950s.

The Unthanks: How Wild the Wind Blows ***

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

That she happened to be the late Molly Drake, mother of tragically short-lived singer-songwriter Nick, brings a trolley load of bitter­sweet baggage. From a stage set cosily with wicker chairs, table lamps and screens for back-projected images, the songs were interspersed deftly with recorded readings of her wry, whimsical and sometimes profoundly-questioning poetry, pre-recorded by actress Gabrielle Drake, Nick’s sister.

Some songs were little more than fragments, but the Unthanks’ tremulous harmonies brought sharp poignancy to the introductory How Wild the Wind Blows and to the winsome First Day.

Was Molly’s wry Poor Mum (a haunting a cappella performance) a rejoinder to her son’s Poor Boy? Certainly some spoken lines seemed a bitter response to her son’s death at the age of 26.

Occasionally their breathily sombre delivery risked dreariness, but the closing Do You Ever Remember, performed to fleeting footage of Molly with an infant Nick, couldn’t be anything other than heart-rending, while Becky’s beautifully cadenced delivery of Nick Drake’s River Man was an encore tour de force.