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The Unthanks give English folk music a new lease of life

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Date Published: {J}

The folk tradition will always enjoy a rarefied place in music – after all keeping old songs alive is important. But when a band like The Unthanks come along you realise that the present can breathe new life into the past. The Northumberland-based band, fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky, play Róisín Dubh on Saturday, March 27.

“The band is all just arriving actually so it’s chaos!” says Rachel from her home in England’s North East. “We’re off to South by Southwest [a major showcase music event in Austin, Texas] so we’re gearing up for that. And looking forward to getting back on the road really.”

Music has been part of Rachel’s life since she was a child and she doesn’t have any clear memory of her first attempt at singing.

“I haven’t really got a specific one,” she says. “It would probably be singing in the car with our parents, on the way to festivals and things. To keep us quiet they used to teach us songs. It was folk stuff – singing Rolling Home. Total indoctrination I’m afraid!”

2009’s superb Here’s The Tender Coming was the band’s third album, but the first as The Unthanks. Previously, the group had been known as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset. Rachel explains the reasons behind the name change.

“There’s quite a big age gap – seven and a half years – between me and Becky. When we first started the band I’d been to university and I was thinking about taking singing a bit more seriously. Whereas Becky was just about to go to uni and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

“ [The name] Rachel Unthank and The Winterset was a get-out clause for Becky if she decided that she wanted to go off travelling or whatever,” she adds. “I think it had the reverse effect because she decided that singing was what she loved doing most. Realistically, we’ve both always taken lead vocal so we thought it was about time to reflect that in the band name. And it’s shorter as well!”

Although the traditions of their native North East England can be heard in their music, The Unthanks possess a knack for creating a sound that reaches across genres and countries. This experimentation was acknowledged with a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination in 2008.

“It does just come naturally; it’s the music we love,” says Rachel about their style. “I think we are quite proud to be able to represent our area in songs and music as well. Although, it’s not like we do that in a purist or staunch way but it’s undoubtedly a massive influence on the way we sing. We’re proud to show people that the North East of England has a strong cultural heritage.”

Folk music often reflects the difficult times people found themselves in but it also has its joyous side. So, with their crystalline harmonies, The Unthanks can turn a moving mining song into something that’s uplifting.

“A lot of the songs are not particularly chirpy,” says Rachel. “Some of them are! A lot of the traditional tunes are quite beautiful as well and I think that does summon up the surroundings. The North East is beautiful but it’s also quite wild and stark as well.

“The mining industry and the sea have a massive impact on the songs that come out of the North East. And I think also the Scottish/English borders and the battles that have been fought there.”

The Unthanks are signed to EMI, one of the world’s biggest record labels. Rachel explains how the group came to the major label’s attention.

“I think somebody was at a concert once and I think they just emailed and asked for a CD. Adrian, our manager – who’s now in the band and is my husband – got in touch with Guy Hayden. He’s part of [EMI subsidiary] Real World. We struck up a great relationship with him and he was happy to create a distribution deal with us.”

Many bands are put under pressure when they’re signed to a major label but EMI don’t interfere with The Unthanks’ sound.

“I don’t think we would do it any other way – but to be fair to them, they’ve never suggested that. They’ve been happy to just let us get on with what we do.”

Here’s The Tender Coming features a host of local musicians and a string quartet. It is a warm, expansive record that reveals more after each listen. Was it long in the making?

“It took –I can’t really remember – a period of time over the summer,” says Rachel. “I’ve wiped it out of my mind now – I find it slightly traumatic, recording! I like being in the moment of performing really, I find that easier.”

With seven people in their current touring line up, The Unthanks are able to recreate the lush sound of their albums at their gigs. At the forefront of this are the twin harmonies of the sisters who front the band. Do Becky and Rachel have to do any pre-show warm-ups?

“Our last pianist, Steph Connor, is a trained singer,” says Rachel. “She taught us a few but I think we sometimes forget, really. We just sing in sound check and we practise stuff, and that’s usually what we do to warm up. As well as have a good old chinwag, of course – which we could do all day!”

It is testament to The Unthanks’ appeal that their Galway gig is in a venue that is more accustomed to hosting loud, guitar-driven indie bands.

“We try and mix up our venues quite a lot,” says Rachel. “We’ll do more traditional venues, like art centres and stuff, and then we’ll try and go to city centre venues to make it as easy as possible for different people to come and see us. It does create a different vibe and we really love playing indie venues as well. When people have paid for a ticket, they want to see your music so it usually goes well.”

 

As the rest of The Unthanks arrive at her house, Rachel reflects the mood of a group who will be on top form when they come to Galway.

“I think the whole band are dying to get back on tour really,” she enthuses. “By the end of a tour you can’t wait to get home and then you can’t wait to out again! The last tour we did was 42 dates and, actually, we were all sad when we got to the end because we had such a great time. We’re looking forward to doing it again.”

The Unthanks play Róisín Dubh on Saturday, March 27. Doors are at 9pm, tickets €18/16 members.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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