From the opening heraldic call in Diversions vol. 2, you know you’re entering another world. It invites you to pay attention and slow down to listen.
The collaboration behind this album is fascinating. The Unthanks have teamed up with Brighouse and the Rastrick Brass Band, known as the best public subscription band in the world and celebrating their second successive year as National Champions of Great Britain, to create a unique sound. It’s live, fresh and different.
All of these pieces were recorded in a live setting, in cathedrals, concert halls and town halls, some with audiences present and some not. There is a vitality to each performance which makes it a one-off.
Unthanks pianist and producer, Adrian McNally has no musical training and doesn’t read or write music. Yet, remarkably, with the assistance of fiddler Niopha Keegan, he wrote half the brass scores for the album.
Brass band music and folk music may be unlikely bedfellows, at first glance. However, the mix here works incredibly well. The blend on this album is compelling and evocative, and it captures a shared hearbeat.
The King of Rome was recorded live at the Lowry, Salford, for the BBC Folk awards, with Becky Unthank providing the lead vocal. It’s a touching story of a Derbyshire working man, Charles Hudson, who entered his pigeon in a race from Rome, and it won. This song sets the scene for a series of vignettes, some of big brass band vintage, others traditional, all delivered impeccably and with a haunting air.
Trimdon Grange Explosion follows, sung evocatively by Rachel Unthank. It was written 150 years ago about a Durham mining explosion, a theme that is still alive with recent events in Wales and Chile.
It opens with a march and has a chorus reminiscent of the Salvation Army: ’Let’s not think about tomorrow lest we disappointed be. For all our joys will turn to sorrow as we only daily see. Today we may be strong and healthy, but soon there comes a change.’ It conjures a picture of the 1950s musical Guys and Dolls.
The Father’s Suite includes four songs: George, Jack Elliott, The Father’s Song (by Ewan McColl), and George II. These are written and arranged by Adrian McNally. Each flows into the next and there is a spoken session by Jack Elliott, where he talks movingly about the moral imperative for individuals to act with awareness of their impact on society.
My Lagan Love is a traditional song sung beautifully by the band’s fiddler Niopha Keegan. She has a pure, strong voice that carries the song well. A surprising contrast follows, with the traditional Queen of Hearts sung by Chris Price in a tongue-in-cheek Big Band version, delivered with panache.
More traditional songs come next: Gan to the Kye is beautifully accompanied by piano and brass. Felton Lonnin has a mournful syncopated minor accompaniment, very characteristic of The Unthanks. These traditional folk songs are transformed into something new, authentic and yet still traditional through the combination of vocals, musical accompaniment and novel arrangements.
Blue Bleezing Blinding Drunk is a story about a woman who marries for money and suffers the consequences. In this new re-imagined version, it has the feel of a music hall set piece.
Newcastle Lullaby is a magical other-worldly version of this simple song.
Another contrast follows, returning to the colliery theme. Gresford (The Miner’s Hymn) is performed in honour of the miners, in traditional colliery brass band fashion.
Diversions vol. 2 ends with Fareweel Regality, another familiar Unthanks song transformed from earlier versions through the addition of the brass.
This is an unmissable and unforgettable album. You feel that you’re there in the auditorium for each piece. It’s a live album with a difference, conjuring up a communal listening experience. A suitable validation of The Unthanks’ evolving originality and their ability to blend traditional folk with a new edge.