Rychard Carrington reports on Rachel Unthank and The Winterset – The Junction Shed, Cambridge, 20 Oct 2007

Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire
Are Rachel Unthank and the Winterset the greatest folk band of all time?

Rather rashly, I would say ‘yes'.

With apologies to all the other great folk bands of past and present. Bellowhead and Flook, for instance, may be perfect, but somehow The Winterset are better than that.

Who are they, then? Well, the name Rachel Unthank and The Winterset suggests a post-rock combo, from somewhere like Cleveland, Ohio, but in fact they are an all-female all-acoustic quartet hailing from Northumberland. As you will have gathered by now, they don't in fact play ‘post-rock' at all, but folk music. However, for all the bonny badinage, breezy banter, cheery chat, dotty diversions etc. between numbers, experimentation and darkness are crucial elements in the band's sound. Rachel and younger sister Becky Unthank (that's a great surname, isn't it? I wish I was called Unthank) do the folk tradition enormous credit in the way they employ its influence - from songs collected off local characters in Northumberland, to enthralling harmonies and even to clog dancing (sometimes in seemingly dainty high heels) - casting to the fore all the tradition's bleak and ribald humanity. Meanwhile pianist Belinda O'Hooley offsets all this brilliantly with piano sounds derived from modern jazz and modern classical influences. Niopha Keegan's quite eerie fiddle adds an extra layer of melody and atmosphere, as does Rachel's cello every so often. Each player contributes so powerfully, so impeccably, that I suspect Rachel's primary billing is due to the group's historical evolution rather than a measure of respective contributions. Not that Rachel isn't in every respect a truly stunning performer; it's just that the other three are as well.

Yet what is a ‘folk band'? Surely, their radical arrangement of Robert Wyatt's masterpiece Sea Song for instance, or Belinda O'Hooley's own Cold and Stiff (about Irish relatives' incomprehension of her lesbianism) are way beyond the genre? Answer: who cares?

In fact, Belinda herself is a quite brilliant composer. Her Whitethorn pays tribute to her great-grandmother, thirteen of whose children did not survive infancy, and were buried under a white thorn bush, which has itself just recently died. Although not traditional, this song communicates much of what is so inspiring about both folk music culture (at its best) in general, and about The Winterset specifically.

Cambridge's Rose Quartet enhanced the texture for two numbers at the start of the second half. Which was nice; but really The Winterset need no enhancement. Their combination of starkness and richness is utterly perfect.

Well, it's possible there was a better one that I've never heard, I suppose. Perhaps in the eighteenth century, maybe in Zanzibar.

Writer: Rychard Unthank (Carrington really, but let's humour him - ed.)