Cast a spell, clear and sharp as frost: The Unthanks, at Edinburgh International Festival, reviewed

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

Damon Albarn; the Unthanks

Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh International Festival

As August unwound, the EIF settled into the cavernous gazebo that is Edinburgh Park, and things began to loosen up. First there was an outbreak of vigorous clog dancing — more on which later. This escalated within 48 hours to a polite mini stampede from our designated seats towards the front of the stage at the start of Damon Albarn’s show, instigated at the artist’s request. ‘I’ve checked and we’re allowed,’ said Albarn sensibly. In 2021 we must take rebellion as we find it. When he lit a cigarette near the end it felt like civilisation was teetering on the very brink.

As it transpired, this wasn’t really music designed for rushing the stage. Albarn’s natural meter is the stoned, head-nodding lope of sound-system reggae; slow, steady, deep and strong. The set focused on Merrie Land, the most recent album by his ‘supergroup’ the Good, The Bad & The Queen, and several songs from his awkwardly titled forthcoming solo record, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.

Alternating between sitting at the keyboards and singing at the microphone, Albarn was backed by a superbly supple and unshowy group of musicians. On the two-chord afro-funk of ‘Go Back’, originally a collaboration with his late mentor, Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, they cooked up a wonderful circling groove. ‘The Poison Tree’ was lilting calypso, simple and soulful. Of the new material, which was woozy and often very beautiful, the dubby ‘Lonely Press Play’ and glassy pop of ‘Royal Morning Blue’ stood out.

Loose and chipper, Albarn is these days more balladeer than barrow boy, his voice most effective when pitched low. As a conduit for multiple diverse musical currents, he seems to have recognised the wisdom of, at times, being sufficiently unobtrusive to allow them to properly assert themselves. On the couple of occasions where he reverted to cheeky chap mode, it jarred.

There was an admirable disdain for former glories. Albarn served up a sole Gorillaz track — ‘On Melancholy Hill’; sad and sweet, child-like in its melodic simplicity — and two by Blur. ‘This Is a Low’, the only song retrieved from the band’s Britpop heyday, remains a key text. When Blur first emerged in the early 1990s they traded on a spring-heeled cartoon Englishness: Fred Perry T-shirts, rowdy Bank Holidays, suburban ennui and greyhound racing. ‘This Is A Low’ was significant for serving notice that Albarn was interested in exploring another Albion, a place of dark magic, of myth, mystery and multiculturalism. It’s a fascination he has continued to pursue, to winning effect.

Two days earlier, the Unthanks had tapped into yet another England, one encompassing Molly Drake, Worzel Gummidge — the band provided music for the show’s recent BBC reboot — poet Charles Causley and Derby pigeon-fanciers. The aural tapestry of ordinary life is made extraordinary largely through the weft and weave of Rachel and Becky Unthank’s pure sibling voices.

This was only the band’s second show since the pandemic arrived, and during ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’ Rachel Unthank briefly forgot the words. She was in good company. I’ve observed a fair amount of ring-rustiness among artists in the past weeks. When I saw Chrissie Hynde play recently, there were false starts and forgotten verses. Other singers have appeared oddly tongue-tied between songs. Like footballers returning from a career-threatening injury, musicians are playing their way back to form. It’s a strange kind of privilege to witness.

With their long dresses, tweed waistcoats and sporadic bursts of Northumbrian clog dancing, it would be easy to peg the Unthanks as some kind of heritage turn. The music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition, but they bring to it contemporary literary, musical and political resonances which feel urgent. The hard staccato rhythm of ‘A Whistling Woman’, driven by electric bass and drums, veered into folk-funk. At other times, the music made by pianist Adrian McNally, violinist Niopha Keegan and multi-instrumentalist Chris Price — augmented periodically with tabla, harmonium and clarinet — shaded into jazz and classical.

They sang tales of welders and riveters, coal ships and female miners. Songs of social struggle, of the Tees and the Tyne. This was fine, and worthy, but I have always come to the Unthanks for something less earthbound, for the moments where they, to borrow the title of their finest album, mount the air. They got up there in the end. On ‘Hawthorn’, ‘Magpie’ and a closing ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’, a spell fell upon us all, clear and sharp as frost.

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