Review: The Unthanks – Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury

The Gulbenkian Theatre, located on the UKC Canterbury Campus, has really nice seats. Outside the air is cold and the traffic is frankly ridiculous. It’s near the end of term. The streets are clogged with departing students. Christmas is around the corner. It’s the perfect time to watch a folk band. You’re especially lucky if that folk band is the Unthanks.

The Unthanks sisters, Rachel and Becky, have enjoyed playing folk music since they were little. They are joined by a variety of friends, including Rachel’s husband Adrian, who plays piano, and an absolutely fantastic string section. They are currently on a tour across Britain, playing the music of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons, two artists as unique in their vision as the Unthanks are unique in theirs.

The band invested each song with a great deal of passion. Rachel Unthanks voice is breathy and ethereal. Becky’s voice is smooth and rich. The two are a beautiful counter-point to each other, especially on a song like You Are My Sister, which obviously has personal significance. On For Today I Am a Boy, their voices soar over the mounting strings, bringing the song to the emotional crescendo the lyrics, about personal acceptance one’s identity, deserve.

The Unthanks almost seem embarrassed to be on a stage above the audience. Not because they are bad performers but because they are folk performers: they’re equal with the audience. There was a great sense of intimacy, as the sisters told jokes and stories in between the exquisitely adapted songs. At times I felt like I was intruding on a private gathering of family and friends. The Unthanks have cultivated a strong cult following, obvious from a quick glance around the audience. My friend and I were the only students in the whole venue, yet every seat was full.

The sound quality was completely clear, making it easy to appreciate the painstakingly delicate interplay between the strings, the bass and the piano. At times the powerful swell of the instruments threatened to over-take the sisters but it never did. The Robert Wyatt half of the show includes such favourites as the incredibly catchy Dondestan, during which the sisters display a great talent for clog-dancing- one of the high-lights of the show. However the most undeniably powerful moment of the second set is Out of the Blue, an impassioned song from the point of view of a victim of war.

The first half of the show deals with struggles of identity and sexuality. The second half is political. It’s a nice balance for the performance, yet whether their songs are about a man’s struggle with his gender identity or about the hardships of Palestinian refugees, the group always maintains the same level of intimacy and friendliness.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with the artists being covered. They don’t just cover the songs. They deliver them from the originals. The Unthanks understand folk music. They understand what it means and why it exists. I highly recommend you go and see them sometime.

Tim Richards