Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin
3 February 2009
It would be all too easy to think that a gallery is the perfect place for folk musicians to play. For some, folk music is out of time, only to be preserved, commemorated, pinned like a beautiful butterfly through the thorax on a cushion of velvet. But no. An emphatic no. Rachel Unthank and the Winterset are alive and vivid, and they are brandishing pins that prick. Their set covered material mostly taken from their 2008 Mercury Prize nominated album, The Bairns.
There is spice in these four girls, and so much more girl power. The songs they sing are about the triumphs and tragedies of mad women let out of attics, railing at the harshness of life and the weaknesses of men and women. Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank share the singing, and have evidently harmonised all their lives, for their voices are distinct yet complimentary: Rachel’s deep and mysterious, Becky’s breathless and fragile. The vocal style brings Northumberland accents to the fore, but what really captivated and moved was the juxtaposition of these vocals with a modern musical sensibility. The warp of Steph Connor’s hypnotic piano and the weft of Niopha Keegan’s violin wove textures that created modern tapestries. Even when the Unthanks danced wearing clogs, it was not clichéd. The sound of wood on concrete was an organic imitation of electronica.
The lyrics painted a folk-gothic world of drinkers, adventurers, adulterers and travellers. Traditional, but anything but comfortable. ‘Dear friends I have a sad story, / A very sad story to tell, / I married a man for his money, / And he’s worse than the devil himself. / I’ll go and I’ll get blue bleezin’ blind drunk, / Just to give Micky a warnin’, / And just for to spite I might stay out all night, / And come rollin’ home drunk in the morning. / When Micky comes home in the evening, / He batters me all black and blue, / He knocks me about from the kitchen, / From the bedroom right through to the room.’ Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff. Here we’re not allowed to feel sorry for the victim. She sings repeatedly: ‘I married a man for his money.’
Jean Genet wrote, ‘Perhaps all music, even the newest, is not so much something discovered as something that re-emerges from where it lay buried in the memory, inaudible as a melody cut in a disc of flesh.’ Rachel and Becky Unthank’s voices cut and wound, scar and heal. These femmes fatales provided us with a banquet of organic morsels, or perhaps lark’s tongues, as would be prepared in El Bulli.
Published on 1 April 2009
Seán Ó Máille is a freelance critic, photographer and full-time secondary teacher in Dublin.