Saturday, October 31, 2015

Keep the Tears at Bay

Walking along Pelham Place in Hastings, it would be easy to pass the entrance to St. Mary-in-the-Castle, the arts centre, exhibition space and music venue, without even noticing it. Even if it did catch your eye amongst the other shopfronts of seaside gift shops and cafes, it would not yield a clue to the architectural delights that lay behind it. Only if you crossed the road to the seafront promenade and looked back would you be able to take in the full splendour of this Grade II listed Neo-Classical church. Flanked on either side by the Regency buildings of Pelham Crescent, it nestles beneath the cliffs and the ruin of Hastings Castle above. Built in the 1820s, it ceased to be a place of worship in 1970 and there followed years of neglect and decline until crescent and church were both refurbished in the late 1990s.

Once inside, and when you have negotiated a series of mazy tunnels with the familiar sandstone walls (parts of the cliffs were excavated during construction), you emerge into a spacious auditorium with stalls seating and a box pew gallery under the domed church roof. It was in the gallery that I sat last night, soaking up the aesthetic splendour of the venue and the sorrowful sound of The Unthanks.

The Unthanks, a modern folk group that perform and record arrangements of traditional songs, folk arrangements of other artistes’ modern songs and their own compositions, originally formed as the all-female Rachael Unthank and the Winterset. It was with their second studio album, the Mercury Prize-nominated, The Bairns, that they first came to the attention of a wider music audience. Since then, they have shortened their name, changed their personnel and released a string of studio and live albums. Currently celebrating their tenth anniversary, last night they demonstrated the wide range of projects they have been involved in during that decade.

Their eclectic set covered much ground: arrangements of heart-rending traditional songs such as I Wish, from The Bairns, and Annachie Gordon, from their Here’s the Tender Coming album; sea shanties and Newcastle shipyard songs; their versions of Antony and the Johnsons’ Man is the Baby and Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding; First World War poetry set to music; the instrumental title track of most recent album, Mount the Air. The range was exhausting and, at times, the lamentable timbre was almost overwhelming. Annachie Gordon, typically, tells a story of forbidden love, forced marriage and death.

Hailing from Northumberland, The Unthanks are something of a family affair: fronted by vocalist sisters Rachael and Becky Unthank, their musical lynchpin is Rachael’s husband, Adrian McNally. At times, The Unthanks have been a ten-piece but last night they were slimmed down to five, with multi-instrumentalists Niopha Keegan and Christopher Price completing the line-up. The Unthank sisters are quick to stress that they are not musicians; but it is their voices – tender and haunting – that define the band’s forlorn and emotional sound. Indeed, they confess that so tragic are most of their songs, they struggle to keep the tears at bay themselves.

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