Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
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Concert review:

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
The Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
Saturday, September 29, 2007

Rachel With an enormous organ as a backdrop, it's a surprisingly formal setting for four chirpy young women from the north of England, who walk on stage carrying clogs and modest smiles.

However, the polished wooden floors and excellent acoustics prove to be perfect for Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, a quartet set for a cult following in the UK following the excellent reviews of their latest album, The Bairns. The concert hall allows the delicious harmonies to soar, for the percussion in the form of high heels and the aforementioned clogs to resonate fully, for the audience to hang on every jazz-inspired chord on the grand piano under Belinda O'Hooley's fingers.

"We're playing for absolutely ages tonight," Becky Unthank, sister of Rachel and wonderfully sandpaper-voiced, stated before the performance, and indeed, the vast majority of the material from The Bairns was aired, much to the delight of the audience. From the acapella "Newcastle Lullaby," where complicated singing in the round was complimented by haunting harmonies, to "Felton Lonnin," where a string quartet from the college was welcomed on to replicate the sumptuous arrangement found on the album, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset proved their musical versatility.

It's true when it is said the Geordie accent is one of the friendliest. The tales the girls told, often in explanation of the song's history or how it was learnt, made the musicians instantly likeable and down to earth, which was actually rather surreal given the environment. Rachel and Becky Unthank have been immersed in traditional music from birth, and their passion and enthusiasm continued to show through, whether it was by the flawless clog patterns the sisters demonstrated or the knowledge of their northern English heritage.

More admirable, however, is the fact that although the songs that Rachel Unthank and the Winterset love may well be hundreds of years old, their approach and arrangement is refreshingly new and bold. Playing a Robert Wyatt track or tapping away in heels is their tack, and frankly, the effect is astounding. - Sophie Parkes

Web site: www.rachelunthank.com

More audio: www.myspace.com/rachelunthank

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cd cover

"Sea Song"

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
The Bairns
Rabble Rouser Records

The buzz surrounding Rachel Unthank and the Winterset has been steadily growing since their first album was hailed folk album of the year by Mojo magazine. But it is their latest offering, The Bairns, which is surely going to ensure global success. The girls are instantly likeable, their homely Geordie accents ringing out on every northern vowel. And although their repertoire is mostly traditional, the dramatic, intensive arrangement combined with percussive high heels, ('glamfolk', Rachel cheerfully dubs it) is going to attract music fans who are not folk enthusiasts.

But it is the Northumbrian material, the Tyneside tunes, that the girls deliver best. The Bairns opens with the haunting "Felton Lonnin." The almost childlike vocals from Rachel Unthank accentuate the delirious bewilderment of the grieving mother. The dialect words, probably alien to even modern day Geordies, hark back to days which we thankfully can't even comprehend, where the loss of infants was commonplace.

The Bairns is stark and bold, where silences and pauses are as important as the slurs from the fiddler's bow or the breathy vocals of Becky Unthank. Each song tends to grow in texture, often from acapella vocals or minimal piano, so "Newcastle Lullaby" is a perfect follow on from the album opener. Although it is meant as a song to send a child to sleep, it becomes almost sinister as they vocally experiment with the piano lines. It is an atmosphere and a nod to time and place, rather than musicality, that is most important to Rachel and her girls. "Newcastle Lullaby" is brought back again as the last track, where again the song is not the main feature, but the Sigur Ros nature of treating sounds is the focus. Indeed, the listener is sent not to sleep but to dream.

The Bairns is also an album of women of the past, and the woman's lot. Whether it's the vengeful tragi-comic "Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk," apparently the first Scottish song depicting an inebriated woman, or "I Wish," the yearning to be an innocent maid again, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset paint a powerful picture of the suffering of historical woman. And although it's an album of lyrical emphasis and vocal wonderment, the songs are full of sumptuous strings and tasteful piano. Just expect flourishes and enhancements, not symphonies. - Sophie Parkes


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