Five voices, a piano, a fiddler who plays the button accordion, a guitarist with a ukulele hidden about his person, two pairs of clogs for dancing: from these few but ample elements The Unthanks build a world of sound as delicate as steel. On a cold February night they brought this world to Dolan’s on the Dock Road.
The set began with a run of songs from their Songs from the Shipyards soundtrack for the film Launch, a study of the working life of the Tyneside shipbuilders which set the tone for what was to come. Musically, the band inhabit an odd spectrum that runs from the British folk revival of the 60s and 70s at one end to the minimalism of Steve Reich at the other. Lyrically, these are songs of some laughter and much foreboding, with a strong emphasis on the indignity of labour.
This last theme ran across a range of the songs the band played, from Jez Lowe’s Black Trade through a shimmering version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding and the near documentary The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, based on the evidence of a 19-year-old coal hurrier to the darkly ominous Close the Coalhouse Door, an Alex Glasgow classic. The voices carry the burden of these songs, but they were ably supported by arrangements based on the weaving of carefully modulated and repeated phrases on the instruments, with Niopha Keegan’s rich violin tones at the heart of it all. The Testimony, for example, is sung with a narrative clarity over a set of repeated, pulsing figures on the stringed instruments. In other instances the voices become part of the weave; in the opening passage of Lucky Gilchrist the effect is something like a Geordie version of Reich’s Tehillim.
There were, of course, lighter moments. These included Canny Hobbie Eliot, a lively ditty of adultery and guitarist Chris Price’s song to his partner, as well as some lively clog dancing from the sisters. The third main strand of the night’s entertainment, the ominous, was present in songs like The Magpie, Robert Wyatt’s genially insane Cuckoo Madame. Fittingly, the whole thing came together in the evening’s encore, a singalong to Here’s the Tender Coming, a classic song of pressgangs at work and the resultant poverty and misery of those left ashore.
The Unthanks are one of the most original bands around at the moment, and this gig was as good an example of that originality as you could have asked for. Their music is as precise as maths but laden with feeling. They sing of sentiment, but without sentimentality. A great night, and thanks are due to Dolans for bringing them to Limerick.