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:: The Unthanks :: Trembling Bells ::
30 March 2011 / Manchester Cathedral / Manchester
By Rachel Mann

What’s all this then? Manchester Music’s metal reviewer in ‘folk gig’ shock? Before I’m accused of selling out, let me say this – folk music, in its many and various forms, has been a key part of my life since I first sheepishly switched the Radio Two Folk Show on in about 1984. As a fan of The Unthanks since their earlier incarnation, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, it was an immense buzz, with my Cathedral hat on, to introduce the evening’s entertainment.

The support Trembling Bells have been on an extraordinary upward trajectory - garnering numerous four and five star reviews for their latest release and beginning to push at the edges of mainstream success. Sometimes characterised as ‘psych-folk’, it’s possible to hear a panoply of influences in Trembling Bells’ work running as far back as the original English folk-rock behemoths Fairport Convention and beyond. Capable of both eerie and transcendent beauty, Trembling Bells were best on the folkier offerings, especially a delicate ‘a capella’ moment. Some of the ‘poppier’ elements felt a little obvious, though there was a nice feedback solo which emerged unexpectedly in one of the more conventional offerings. The bleak and very English harmonies were well suited to the ecclesiastical setting and main vocalist Lavinia Blackwall clearly has a potent set of lungs, capable of soaring to impossible heights. However, her vocals are a little too sweet for my taste running the risk of slipping (if it’s not stretching it too much) into ‘Judy Collins style’ cleanliness rather than ‘Sandy Denny style’ vulnerable power and soulfulness.

The Unthanks have come a very long way in recent years. Last time I saw them, they were just releasing their Mercury-nominated ‘Bairns’ album and younger sister Becky was not a fully acknowledged member of the band; since then they’ve grown from basically a spartan 4/5 piece to a big 8/9 piece monster. What I hadn’t expected was how delicate and nuanced they remain. And there is no doubt that Rachel and Becky are two of the most extraordinary and original vocal talents active in any form of music. The uncompromising, almost melancholic brilliance of the rest of the band enabled them to simply ‘own’ the Cathedral – I have witnessed many forms of music in its transcendent space, but The Unthanks convinced the audience that the gothic arches were simply made for folk.

What this new, larger set-up enables them to do is expand the austerity of their sound into something jazzier, proggier and subtler that, nonetheless, never collapses into lush easiness. Some of the arrangements are almost heartbreaking and whether working with material off the latest album or older work there is brilliant consistency. Most tracks are anchored by Adrian McNally’s understated piano work, but the other musicians were outstanding, especially the heart-rending trumpet.

However, it is the witty, self-deprecating and always engaging sisters who are the beating heart of this band. I was anxious that their move to a venue as large as the Cathedral would only isolate Rachel and Becky from the crowd but their brilliant Northumbrian friendliness shone through. And indeed part of their remarkable charm lies in their lack of ‘starriness’ – when I chatted with Rachel briefly after the show she was clearly just delighted to have had a chance to play somewhere as odd and grand as Manchester Cathedral. Equally the sisters’ vocal interplay is superb and it’s amazing to see how Becky’s breathy deep voice has matured and properly come to share the spotlight with Rachel’s more classic folk tone. Their voices seem to reach to a time lost and yet remain utterly contemporary – ancient voices made for our time. Highlights included a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘No One Knows I’m Gone’ and an encore that included warm-hearted classic ‘Farewheel Regality’. I was also moved by a brilliantly simple song about the passing of the shipyards which was created for a film project the band is connected with. However, the truly dazzling moment for me was their cover of King Crimson’s 1974 classic ‘Starless’. Perhaps it is unsurprising that an old Progger like me would be dazzled by it, but there is no doubt that it is one of the finest covers of any track I’ve heard in a long time: delicate, potent and desperately moving all at once. While I know that there were some in the audience who were uncomfortable that this gig was not seated, frankly I was soaring through rarified air all night. Not sure I’ve landed yet.

The Unthanks
Trembling Bells

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