|The Unthanks – How Wild The Wind Blows, at the Royal Northern College Of Music, Manchester, UK
One of the many fine and fascinating things about The Unthanks is how they manage to fearlessly represent the very epitome of the folk tradition yet at the same time are so extraordinarily adventurous. Their last album Mount The Air was one of the most remarkable records of recent years, not least for its melding of Miles-esque jazz with clog dancing! In parallel to their – for want of a better description – mainstream output, they’ve also released a series of Diversions, exploring the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, rearranging their own output with a brass band, or celebrating Songs From The Shipyards. The just-released Diversions Vol. 4 provides the basis for their new “How Wild The Wind Blows” tour and finds them interpreting the songs and poems of Molly Drake from a private collection of home recordings, only recently unearthed and made public. They believe that the collection “contains songs extraordinary enough to rank alongside and independently of the work of her revered son, Nick Drake.” That’s a slightly contentious assertion, of course, but what’s undeniable is that Molly’s songs do have an intrinsic value of their own, not least as, although they are definitely accomplished and fully realised pieces of work, they were presumably never designed to be exposed to an audience and thus have a bittersweet fragility and innocence that can’t help but prompt comparisons with her son’s output. For the project (and there’s another Extras collection only available from their website or on the tour that includes two of Molly’s finest songs, ‘Happiness’ and ‘Night Is My Friend’, as well as more of her poetry) they teamed up with Molly’s daughter and Nick’s sister – the celebrated actress Gabrielle Drake – and her pre-recorded performances of her mother’s poetry are at least as important to this tour as the always-stunning singing of Rachel and Becky Unthank, or the tasteful musical accompaniment of pianist and arranger Adrian McNally, the double-bass of Chris Price and the violin of Niopha Keegan, as well as tour newcomer Faye MacCalman on clarinet and tenor sax . As with their “Songs From The Shipyards” tour, it’s presented as something of a multi-media experience, with Gabrielle’s readings accompanied by onscreen family pics and with a homely-looking set, decorated with the sort of chairs, flowers and standard lamps that you might well have found in the Cambridge living room where Molly’s husband Rodney recorded his wife singing. The unearthed original tape, which I suspect few in the venue or elsewhere would have already heard, is soon to be reissued and thus we’ll have a chance to compare the original versions with The Unthanks’ new arrangements, should we wish. It might upset the band to hear this but I doubt I will be one of the ones doing so – the fragile magic of the songs as rendered by The Unthanks is enough to prove to me that Molly was indeed a notable talent. Would this show exist without the cult following that’s grown up around her son? Very probably not, and they even included “River Man”, apparently the first Nick Drake song Becky ever heard right here in Manchester, as an encore. But that doesn’t mean that this is not a fascinating, meaningful and strangely moving show, well worth checking out live, should you get the chance, and definitely on record.