The Unthanks perform the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty @ The Dome, Brighton
This is a more complicated affair than first appears: Mercury-nominated folkies The Unthanksare already better known for their canny interpretations of traditional folk songs than for their original numbers but it’s curious that they’ve chosen to sing the songs of those who are not primarily famed as songwriters themselves. Antony Hegartyis a regular guest vocalist/collaborator, lauded for his remarkable, querulous, avian tones, while by far the best-known song Robert Wyatt ever recorded was written by Elvis Costello and much of his output has been co-written with his lyricist partner Alfreda Benge. So despite initial assumptions there’s not really any place for the auteur here: the Unthanks are a truly collaborative effort – a band not just sisters – and this evening is a demonstration in practice of interpretation as a creative act in its own right. Once you stop frowning pointlessly over who’s responsible for the song or where exactly the magic is located (in the voices, the words, the instruments, the arrangements, the chords, the melody, the occasion itself?) you can just let the beauty of the moment wash over you.
The first song in the Hegarty half of the show, ‘You Are The Treasure’, gets eyes prickling with tears and the second (‘Another World’) is so shivery with melancholy and imminent loss that it provokes strangers to grin at each other, delighted that they’ve been privileged to witness something so very special. The Unthanks’ voices are extraordinary instruments; as unaffected as childhood and as lovely as a bright clear morning on the Northumberland shore. There’s something intensely touching about the grain, the burr, of their voices, because it reminds us that this glorious sound is coming straight from fallible, fragile human throats. This is the very opposite of unearthly; it’s grounded, ringing with stone and sea and wind and it’s as moving as fuck. Becky Unthank could sing the phone directory and make it sound like sunshine over storm-tossed oceans.
Their performance of ‘You Are My Sister’, as Rachel confesses, verges on the saccharine; there isn’t the darkness and tremble of Antony’s version, but it does end with the sweet sight of the two sisters reaching out to touch fingertips. Without their originator’s presence, his story, his fragility, his soaring tremulous tones, Hegarty’s songs don’t quite have the dynamics to carry the first half entirely successfully; after those first two gut-wrenching glories, they come across en masse as pretty but flat. There’s the slight tinge of the cruise ship jazz band about proceedings, balding bearded men in waistcoats tempered by the all-female, be-frocked string quartet.
It is in Wyatt’s delightfully quirky compositions that this project really comes alive. There’s ‘Dondestan’, clog-danced and chorused into merry existence; ‘Free Will And Testament’, an articulate polemic bemoaning the lack of free will which is turned into a gently heartbreaking Unthank anti-hymn; Alfie Benge’s ‘Out Of The Blue’, in which a man walks through the remains of his bombed-out Beirut home, all violence and surreal imagery, and which has at its core the repeated phrase “You have planted everlasting hatred in my heart”; words which take on a different tone when sung with sweet ferocity over dissonant strings by young women rather than in a squall of noise by a grizzled old man. The result is subtle and chilling and here’s where the real art of the cover lies: in the transformative effect of new voices, new context, new tones that can deepen, clarify and reconfigure familiar songs.
Of course ‘Sea Song’ is what brought us here In the first place. It’s a slow unwind of a thing, even more measured and luscious than the 2007 recording of which Wyatt himself famously and heartily approved, Rachel’s softly sibilant vocals washed by piano cords and the odd sharp clog click until the whole song breaks like surf over the beach, in massed “aahs”, strings and beautifully spiralling trumpet.
It’s a lovely occasion, a proper concert in a proper hall with disorientatingly proper, dressed-up, people. There’s cheery banter and moments of shivery delight: the acapella ‘Paddy’s Gone’ when the ten members of the band cluster front of stage to sing in layered harmonies for us; the only non-Wyatt/Hegarty number, ‘Tar Barrel In Dale’ a New Year carol written by their dad, George Unthank, which the audience joins in on. There’s nothing like communal carolling to warm the cockles and so we are sent off into the December night, ablaze with song.