Rachel, Becky and Niopha; The Unthanks, 'Unaccompanied, As We Are'; returned to Kent in their latest incarnation to sing songs old and new in their purest form. Setting aside the need for orchestration or even a lone piano, the trio of singers hid behind nothing as they performed completely exposed and unaided. "If you were expecting trumpets clogs and pianos, we've left them all at home", Becky explained.
Ahead of The Unthanks' appearance came Tim ('Uncle Timmy') Dalling and his accordion. In his suit, tie and silver rimmed glasses he looked rather more like an old school teacher than a performer but it wasn't long before his humorous asides and lively delivery rendered any reservations redundant. Ayr man Dalling "filled the room with dead people" as he played songs about 'The Bard Of Dundee' on 'Michael Marra' a song from a poem by Louis MacNeice, 'Meeting Point', and another about absent friends from a poem by Sean O'Brien among others. Uncle Timmy, ever ready for a revival of Music Hall (which he is sure is coming), danced and sang with an infectious gusto as he had the crowd singing along on 'Shy Bairns' (Get nee broth) and wondering which way to look as he gave the preamble to 'The Hairy Wee Hole'. The song inspired by his mother's death eighteen months ago drew the biggest response of the night as he told the story of bed baths and "Mammy's special place" and "how I came face to face with wence I came!".
The Unthanks, fresh from their walk along Folkestone's rejuvenated Harbour Arm, didn't share anything quite so revealing or vividly personal (Thankfully!). After partaking in some tasty snacks at 'Pick Up Pintxos', the two ladies from Tyneside and one from St Albans left their two babies to sleep as they took to the "rather peaceful" stage. With three mics, two speakers and no instrumentation The Unthanks walked (Actually Niopha tripped) onto the stripped back stage to rapturous applause from the audience.
The first of The Unthanks' songs was 'Guard Your Man Well'. The three ladies took a moment to compose themselves; Rachel looked left and right as she made sure they were all set and ready, and then as one they started to sing in unison. The combined voices of the vocal trio singing together brought goosebumps to your arm. From the first note it was clear that the decision to sing without any soundtrack was both brave and brilliant.
With Niopha and Becky both having had babies about a year ago they had decided that they "should learn some lullabies". They are clearly good at learning and just as good, if not better, at interpreting and performing. The three part harmonies were quite spectacular as Becky at first took the lead vocal with her elder sister Rachel, and newer band member Niopha, on backing vocal. The vocal lead seamlessly passed to Rachel for 'Golden Apples' and then onto Niopha for the final, deeper Gaelic lullaby. The segued songs held the crowd transfixed as they witnessed the vocal dexterity brought to bare before them.
'Griesly Bride' saw The Unthanks back to sharing equal vocal duties before they invited the crowd to sing along on the Graeme Miles song 'Sea Coal'. "We run singing weekends up in Northumbria... singing and eating", they explained as Becky divided up the audience into groups. "You'll need to help me with the high notes", she said before they started the performance. With expert guidance, a clear enthusiasm from the crowd and some very good acoustics the impromptu choir of voices sounded fabulous as they whole heartedly got behind the song.
Rachel Unthank shared a song about Sandgate, as they were all staying just down the road in Kent's Sandgate, explaining that there was also one in Tyneside and that Rachel had recorded 'The Sandgate Dandling Song' for a Stick In The Wheel' field recording at her house. Becky and Niopha left the stage briefly as Rachel delivered the song she had "been singing since she was a teenager" solo. Apart from one slightly awry note in the middle which prompted a little laugh from Rachel the song was delivered in spectacular fashion. Rachel's lone voice in the hushed confines of The Quarterhouse was just fantastic. The character and quality in her voice was never more evident than on this song as she delivered up one of the stand-out moments of the evening.
The Unthanks continued as a trio with the Molly Drake song 'Poor Mum' before they performed one of their best known tracks 'Magpie'. "Does anyone watch The Detectorists? If you've got sharp ears you may know this one from that", Becky said before breaking into the Davey Dodds song they had originally recorded on their 2015 album 'Mount The Air'. The performance was quite literally breath-taking. The Richard Dawson song, 'We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed', was one of Becky's finest, even taking to standing on one leg as she captured each note perfectly.
As the night drew towards its conclusion, Rachel thanked Joel, the sound engineer, both for the sound and for the new, large, water bottles. "I'm not allowed glass", she quipped before asking if it was safe for Becky to go swimming in the sea tomorrow. "You never know, there might be rip-tides. She's my younger sister, I've got to protect her at all times", Rachel went on. The Unthanks finished the main set with the protest song 'Bread And Roses' before returning for a two-track encore that saw Tim Dalling join them on stage for what Rachel said "is becoming my favourite part of the set" as he joined them for a rousing gospel number. Becky ended the night by saying, "We'll sing you a sad song, we wouldn't want to leave you with the wrong impression" before singing out the final number and taking the enthusiastic applause of the audience as they all took a bow.
The Unthanks sang the most beautiful songs in the most exquisite and sublime way possible. The combination of voices, the faultless harmonies and the individual characterful vocals all combined to give rise to a superb performance at The Quarterhouse. The Unthanks said they liked Folkestone and would like to return and I have no doubt that the audience loved The Unthanks and would dearly love them to return such was the quality of the performance.