The Unthanks are well established in folk circles, and beyond for that matter. They do ‘traditional Folk’ and much, much more. Increasingly diversified in their repertoire, but always true to their roots, they have built a huge following of those who like folk music plus those who love good, challenging, emotive and surprisingly inventive music. Having successfully performed world-wide in recent years, this year they played several major festivals across the UK including Glastonbury, and their followers include many a popular name in the entertainment business (to mention Martin Freeman would be gratuitous name-dropping but he’s not alone, as Stephen Mangan, Al Murray or Robert Wyatt could be included too on what is quite a long list. The Mercury nominated Tyneside band have had ambitions of running their own festival for some time, and this Gathering saw it become reality.
So which venue to choose for such an event? They have considerable experience playing village halls, concert halls, and festivals but presenting an acoustic show at the mostly unseated Roundhouse in London, a former engine shed, earlier this year maybe gave them the idea of a similar venue closer to home.
The Boiler Shop (directly behind Newcastle’s Central Station) is an impressive post-industrial space, the birthplace of Robert Stephenson’s Rocket and is already used for music/food/drink/art events, holding a ‘Steamer’ event at the start of each month. But I digress, which gives me the chance to suggest if you don’t like folk music then feel free to skip to the last few paragraphs to see how it ended but remember where you left off (here !) as you may be intrigued how they got there, from such a traditional start.
Admittedly the programme for the event looked very ‘folky’ but the judicious choice of mainly local performers provided a progressive morphing from pure folk, via solo flash-performances through the epicentre which was The Unthanks and finally a manic morph of energy and genre into the Baghdaddies. You could almost call it an 8-hour musical segue. By my reckoning it comprised 20% traditional folk music, but 100% live music which was superbly played and totally matched the atmospheric potential of the Boiler Shop. Stage 1 was the main stage, with a smaller Stage 2 for the smaller and solo performances, including the DJ sets from Paul Smith, being close by.
So here’s how it unfolded. The atmosphere in the Boiler Shop appeared rather vacant at 4pm as the doors opened, with only food and drink stalls interspersed with merch and artisan products around the sides. But once the audience had started to pour in, then the first performance (at 4:15 ! ) of flash-clog dancing and flash-Rapper dancing, the atmosphere came alive and was guaranteed for the rest of the 8 hour programme which had a line-up of hand-picked performers plus the flash-performances in between times.
George Unthank appeared on Stage 2 at exactly 4:30 just as programmed and opened the event with a solo to kick things off, leading straight into ‘Twelfth Day’ which comprises fiddle player Catriona Price and harpist Esther Swift. A duo (or quartet if you include the two voices) playing Gaelic tunes & songs with some variety including a Schubert song which didn’t seem too far out of place. The duo played and sang with excellent harmonies matching the acoustic space as if it were purpose-designed for them. Their slight nervousness gave way to pure enjoyment as their performance progressed, lifted by the audience’s rapt attention and enthusiastic applause. Each was engrossed in their solo playing but with fleeting glances to confirm they were synchronised and playing as one.
Then to Stage 2 for solo singing of the folk variety – response songs with the audience, followed by Rachel & Becky Unthank who led a similar form getting a good response from the keen folks in the audience. Then three clog dancers (including Becky Unthank) with folk accompaniment.
Then back to Stage 1 for Rob Heron’s Tea Pad Orchestra which picked up the pace with their ‘North Eastern Swing’- a 21st Century British take on Hokum Blues, Hot Jazz, Western Swing, Gypsy Jazz and Country. No need to try and imagine that, suffice it to say it was a lively set with the band on top form, with good solos and interplay between players. The songs are penned by Rob Heron leading the six-piece with Ben Fitzgerald (guitar), Tom Cronin (mandolin), Colin Nicholson (accordion), Ted Harbot (double bass) and Paul Archibald (drums).
A good set to bring up the energy levels and the audience responded accordingly including some impromptu swing dancing on Stage 2 by couples from the audience which encouraged further dancing on the floor.
Briefly back to Stage 2 again (officially this time) where Becky Unthank led another audience response song ‘Byker Hill’ followed by Jim Magean (from The Keelers) with ‘Dance to the Daddy/When the Boat Comes In’. Standard traditional folk stuff I guess, but well done
Then another main act on Stage 1 – Alasdair Roberts. He has a distinctive voice, his reedy vocals aren’t for everyone, but his twisting melodies and cryptic imagery hold the attention despite being generally ‘dour’ but was enjoyed by his fans who made an attentive audience against the hubbub of those taking a rest by browsing round the stalls in the Boiler Shop. Admirably supported by Stevie Jones (double Bass) and Rafe Fitzpatrick(fiddle).
Then back to Stage 2 where the Weekend Singers put on a short performance, followed by Rachel and Becky Unthank, again audience response songs with good support from the audience. And with time to spare before the next act, Paul Smith (of Maxïmo Park Park) provided a short DJ set. For me, not a memorable set of tracks but it fitted in well with the crowds expectations of what was to follow – the headline act !
Spot on cue, the anticipation climaxed at 8:15 with the headline act – The Unthanks. The ensemble on stage included their usual string section (Neopha Keegan leading), plus Chris Price (bass) and Martin Douglas (drums) with Liz Jones (trumpet) Adrian McNally (piano and ) and Rachel and Becky Unthank (voice, clogs) to the fore.
Starting with ‘Starless’ they played several tracks from their latest album ’Mount the Air’ alongside ‘King of Rome’, ‘Lucky Gilchrist’, ‘Last’ and ending with a reprise of ‘Mount the Air’. The set included four spectacular displays of ‘clogging’ by the Unthanks sisters – all perfectly executed and demonstrating a lot of stamina!
As well as performing many of their most popular songs, they made time to include an audience participation of ‘Sea Coal’ (by local writer Graeme Miles) which blended well with the surroundings (it was dark by then) with torches (mobiles with flashlights) used to see the words. No doubt a unique and memorable occasion for the participating weekend singers.
Then back to a rousing set of more familiar Unthanks tunes, including more clogging. Now, I’m not a fan of clog dancing, but seeing it performed live lets you appreciate how impressive, skilful and outright exhausting it is. But for a band who’ve embraced traditional Folk music through to a King Crimson track (‘Starless’) then that’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the mix.
What a performance it was!! OK, it was in front of a home crowd, at their own mini-festival but they played what seemed to be flawlessly to a packed house whose expectations were huge and totally met. They delivered, to the enjoyment of all.
Then time to move back to Stage 2 for a short DJ set from Paul Smith who kept the energy levels going whilst Stage 1 was readied for The Baghdaddies. Those in the know would be taking a rest at this point, in anticipation, but those waiting to find out what was in store were in for a real treat, and a further injection of adrenalin. The music was about to morph yet again, turning the space into a frenzied dance party driven by an insanely dance-infectious live band.
I reckon the Baghdaddies should really be called The Bad Daddies – producing a high energy mix of Balkan Roma wedding, Klezmer and Ooompah band with a strong element of Ska. Maybe infused with elements of Madness and The Blockheads, but more likely based on the Budapest Café Orchestra style but with attitude (maybe Ska-ttitude) and twice the speed (unsubstantiated pun to highlight the energy levels they infuse in themselves and in the audience).
The band comprise Nigel Kirkpatrick (Trumpet, Vocals and s occasionally Melodica). Paul Susans (Bass guitar , Vocals, Sousaphone) Nik Alevroyiannis (Drums, Vocals, Marching Drum), Paul Ruddick (Saxophone, Vocals and occasionally Flute). Ziad Jabero (Guitar, Vocals and occasionally Trombone ). OK so they all do Vocals !!! They produce relentless high energy fun. But if you listen to their playing – each is a master of their instruments (all are multi-instrumentalists).
The highlight of their gig was the ‘encore’ where they picked up their instruments (the Bassist swapping for his Sousaphone and Ziad’s guitar replaced by his trombone!!) and marched into the audience and shook the house down even more. Hugely entertaining.
Finally, 7 ½ hours after the start, Paul Smith’s final DJ set. An eclectic mix which appeared to embrace all decades from the 50’s onwards. It drew a good crowd who were still keen to continue the dancing which the Baghdaddies had driven relentlessly for the past hour. A wonderfully diverse selection of tracks, although I must have missed the call for Last Orders as there was still one tap on the go (thankfully) and thirsty band members to satisfy.
So, how did it fare overall? Thankfully, it turned out to be a well organised and well run event, the first of its kind by the Unthanks’ organising team (not sure if that’s one or many) which flowed seamlessly. It started 15 minutes early, and ended 15 minutes late, providing 8 hours of continuous live music (the DJ set was ‘live’ too). Well done on that score. The sound and lighting were on the button. The organisation worked and the programming was excellent. If you stayed away because you don’t like Folk then you missed a treat, for all of the above reasons, but not least of which was being presented with a segue musical styles from a variety of great local bands. Well done guys !
Photographer – Ken Drew
I’m mostly attracted to Jazz music in all of its forms, along with Blues, Greig, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Piazzolla, Bryars, The Third Programme, Late Junction, and BBC Radio 6 etc etc.
Basically I like much of the variety of contemporary music of the Modern Era and like to be inspired or surprised by it.I really enjoy live music performances, but Jazz is my main thing, along with contemporary organ music (live at Durham Cathedral) and the Unthanks.I’ve met people with similarly diverse tastes, and don’t worry too much about genres and where they belong. When I like it, I enjoy it !
Hobbies / interests include music, photography, real ales, walking, fresh air.