Union Chapel, Islington
Some combinations are just meant to be, and one of those if the sound of The Unthanks and the soaring vault and gothic revival architecture of Union Chapel. If there is a lovelier sound in music, or a more beautiful music venue in London, then I don’t know them. Warmed by electric lamps fixed to the lower edge of the balcony, just below the tea lights twinkling against their marble inlays, a capacity crowd listened in hushed awe. It really was one of the most beautiful sounding and looking events I have ever attended.
When I booked the tickets I thought this might be a festive show of some kind but instead it turned out to be a celebration of ten years of The Unthanks. Rachel and Becky started the show unaccompanied, singing John Dead a Capella just as they did in their earliest days of performing. Over the next few songs more band members were added until the full current ten piece line up were on stage, starting with musical arranger and keyboardist (and Mr Rachel Unthank) Adrian McNally and finishing with strings, drums and trumpet. Each addition create a new layer to the sound without overwhelming those marvellous voices. That said, during King of Rome the drums and trumpet started to swing and for a moment it looked like the song was in danger of turning into The Pigeon is a Tramp. Happily the song, and the first half of the show, drew to a close before this could come to pass.
I’m not a great fan of intervals in headline acts’ performances, and this show suffered more than most. I understand the economic reasons. It must cost a lot to keep a ten piece band on the road and I was more than happy to buy a copy of the rarities CD to add to the merch stall takings (before the performance I had wondered why there was nothing for sale until the interval; it turned out to be because it was staffed by Adrian and multi-instrumentalist Niopha Keegan, who presumably had musical matters on their minds pre show time). But when the second part of the show started it seemed to struggle to make up its lost momentum, not helped by a particularly bleak choice of songs. Still beautiful, still heart-rending, but this shorter section of the show seemed to be over when it had hardly begun.
If you’ve heard The Unthanks and been unmoved then this show might not have changed your mind. You could have admired the gorgeous setting and the lighting changes while admiring the craft without having you emotions engaged. But for those of us who find something current yet ancient, mournful but life affirming, in their sound this was both a superb spectacle and an emotionally thrilling musical evening, and whatever your taste in music you can’t ask more of a gig than that.
Very couply, middle aged and older (The Light and I are both poking 50 with a short stick and were probably still below the average age) respectful during the songs, roused to huge applause by the end.
It made me think..
At moments I found myself thinking that I wanted to live inside this gig.