Rachel Unthank and the Winterset + Spiers and Boden @ Birmingham Town Hall – 15th May 2009


Tonight’s concert kicks off the second English Originals Festival, described by the Town Hall as ‘a celebration of music and artists that are uniquely English in character, all with a strong sense of place, identity, time and tradition’. There’s a mixture of paid gigs and free events and it looks like it will be a good weekend.

Much to my surprise, the Town Hall is only half full — 340 people, according to one of the ushers. Given that Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are a well established and well respected group with a string of awards and award nominations to their name (2008 Mercury Prize nominees, 4 nominations and 1 win in the 2008 BBC Folk Awards, 2007 Daily Telegraph Folk Album of the Year and a whole lot of others), I expected a sell-out crowd.

The audience that is here is a quiet but appreciative one. There’s a preponderance of grey hair although there are a couple of groups of younger people.

Spiers and Boden, the support act, start the evening. They’ve been around for about 10 years now. Like the Winterset, they come with a long list of awards including winning Best Duo at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in both 2004 and 2006. They’re also founding members of the 11 piece band, Bellowhead, and have five duo albums to their credit.

Given their experience, I’m surprised to pick up what seems like a bit of nervousness in the early part of the set — tiny mistakes, leads falling out of their guitars, hesitant stage chat, etc. Maybe it’s the venue — I love the Town Hall but it has a kind of formality that isn’t always comfortable for folk performers and audiences, more used to pubs and festivals.

Despite this, the two men provide some very nice traditional singing and playing on a variety of instruments — fiddle, accordion, concertina and guitar. They start with ‘Tom Padget, and then go on to an instrumental set — ‘Jack Robinson/Algiers/Old Tom of Oxford. Next comes another instrumental — ‘Cheshire Waltz’ — a Lincolnshire tune despite its name. Spiers and Boden suggest that the audience get up and dance and the music is certainly very danceable to — but sadly, no one respnds to the suggestion.

Rachel Unthank support 1Rachel-Unthank-support-2

The audience do warm up slowly as the set goes on but the Town Hall is a bit too inhibiting to get much real participation for quite a while. We move on to a couple of songs, starting with ‘Captain Ward’. There’s a chorus, but the audience are reluctant to join in. ‘Down by the Riverside’ gets a bit more singing along and the atmosphere begins to lift. A Tom Waits song — ‘Innocent When You Dream’ — is well performed, but I don’t think it has the strength of the traditional material.

Finally we get to an Abingdon Morris Tune, ‘The Princess Royal’, and the evening takes off. It’s a lively tune, with percussion provided by the stamping feet of the musicians and is played excellently. I loved the bit where the fiddle came in in a minor key with the accordion providing the drone. Some of the audience start to clap along. A second tune holds the audience spellbound.

Next comes a sea shanty — ‘Haul Away’. It’s a new arrangement and certainly gives what can sometimes be a rather hackneyed and over-familiar tune a fresh appeal. It’s great to listen to — but would be far too fast for any sailor to haul to!


Rachel and the Winterset come on stage. There are currently four members in the band — Rachel Unthank and her sister Becky Unthank, pianist Stef Conner and Irish fiddle player Niopha Keegan. All four sing and Rachel also plays cello. It’s a youthful band who have grown out of the vibrant and significant folk scene in the North East of England.

The band start with the stunning ‘Newcastle Lullaby’, much of it sung as unaccompanied harmonies, and the audience is mesmerised. I’m supposed to be taking pictures but I too stand absolutely stock still, refusing to break the spell with a shutter click.

We move on to a couple of ‘woman done wrong’ songs — ‘I wish I was a maid again’ and ‘Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk’. A large number of the songs that Rachel and the band perform are about women caught up in intolerable situations of domestic abuse, abandonment and the like. While these obviously do form a large part of the folk canon, I found myself wishing that they would choose at least a few songs of female empowerment — which also are part of the tradition!


‘Blue’s Gaen Oot o’ the Fashion’ (a song sung by the woman left behind after her man’s been press-ganged into the navy) was great fun — accompanied by both Rachel and Becky giving a very creditable performance of clog dancing! Becky’s performance of the Robert Wyatt song, ‘Sea Song’ — ‘So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon, You’re madness fits in nicely with my own, with my own, Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own, We’re not alone’ — was superb but deeply disturbing.

So too is the next song, ‘Felton Lonnen’, a song about a mother searching for a lost child — lots of repeated lines, rhythmic, almost chanting — haunting and unsettling.

Throughout the evening the band are very comfortable on stage, chatting with the audience, interacting with each other, mucking about — all very natural and positive. They’re not put off by the semi-formality of the venue (which Rachel describes as ‘dead posh’, pointing out the various gold bits!). Their ease with what they are doing makes the audience comfortable too and there is real pleasure to be seen on the faces around me.

‘Blackbird’ (written by Belinda O’Hooley, a former member of the band) is about abandonment; so is Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’. I love these women; they are superb musicians who are capable of exquisite harmonies and counter-harmonies and who play their instruments equally well. They do wonderful things with their arrangements, drawing on elements of blues, jazz, music hall, burlesque cabaret, classical and contemporary music, without leaving behind the elements that make it traditional folk. The music is frequently haunting and almost hypnotic. They have taken the folk music that they grew up with and transformed it into something which has roots reaching into the past and branches of equal length reaching into the future. They sing powerful songs in convinced and convincing ways. And yet, and yet ….

There were points during the evening when I longed for a bit more variation in the material — a few songs or tunes that were not mournful or heartrending, an image of a strong happy woman, possibly just a dance tune or two. The canvas was sometimes a bit monochrome — I just needed a bit more colour.


The band finished the set with Terry Conway’s Hexhamshire song, ‘Farewell Regality’, a lovely song of parting and farewell — ‘ And there’s nowt that I can bid ye, But that peace and love gan with ye, Never mind wherever call the fates Away from Hexhamshire…’ — which was new to me but which I’ve found myself singing since.

As one might have expected after such a capable performance, the audience called for encores and the band duly obliged with the Shetland Song ‘The Unst Boat’ (learned from Sandra Kerr), sung in Norn and unaccompanied, giving us the chance to again enjoy this group’s ability to sing four part a capella harmony. The sound was rich and satisfying. They followed this with the whaling song ‘My Donald’, which tells the tale of the sorrow suffered by the women left behind while their husbands were on the whaling ships.

And so, with the caveat above, a satisfying and enjoyable evening.

Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund

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