LIVE REVIEW: The Unthanks with Army of Generals chamber orchestra @ Sage Gateshead (09.12.17) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley’s book Little Gods ends with a poem called Wild Hyacinths, which reads, in its entirety,

                Where are we, darling? The breeze
                brings a blue scent. Evergreens
                gather in the darkness

It appears, weirdly, separated from the rest of the poems by a blank page, whispering to you its truths and questions after you think the book has already ended. A quiet sort of encore.

The Unthanks could’ve done encores for days. After returning to the stage to tap-dance a leading rhythm around which the orchestra flared and fanfared in a tight-yet-broad reprise of Mount The Air, the Ryton-born sisters bowed, exited, then were coaxed back out into light by audience and orchestra alike, stamping and clapping in unison for their return. If there was a kind of folk-gig rubric to the thing, there was also genuine poignance and warmth as they embraced their audience like evergreens thanking their own roots. 

A bit earnest, sure, but it was that kind of a night. I was reminded of Polley first when The Unthanks sang, “I’ll mount the air on swallow’s wing / to find my dearest dear” and again as they breathed their way through the airy refrains of Life’s A Flutter. There’s the same brand of easy daring, a bodied insistence upon the natural meaningfulness of things, the acknowledgement that life’s abundance – flowers, wings, suns, mothers, seasons, seas – is bright and dark at once. That no magic exists without sorcery, no leaf without rank soil, no love without loss, no drink without being drunk. It’s the true stuff of folk.

But, of course, the whole deal with The Unthanks is that it’s not ‘just’ folk. The orchestral arrangements and interpretations were pretty much flawless, the noise of it all so rich it entered your actual body. A purist might say it was a lot of sound and fury for a folk song to sustain, but there was delicacy and detail in the music, and a kind of phonic altruism in its largeness, its way of literally vibrating your core. Any risk of the scale of the gig becoming impersonal or exclusive was absolutely dispelled when Becky led the audience in a singalong-harmony to the (properly, achingly beautiful) Great Selkie of Sule Surrey.

This gig cast about in the dark zones of changelings and foundlings, tragedy, yearning and impermanence. It was for the most part, really, really sad. But The Unthanks ask you to join them in the uncertainty, rightly assured that when we engage together with such pure and beautiful art, even in darkness, something evergreen gathers.

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