Gig review: Unthank:Smith at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Rachel Unthank performing at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Gary BrightbartRachel Unthank performing at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Gary Brightbart
Rachel Unthank performing at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Gary Brightbart
On face value Rachel Unthank and Paul Smith come from very different musical worlds.

The former is modern folk royalty while the latter is best known as frontman of alt-rock outfit Maxïmo Park. Yet when they met at an Africa Express gig, they bonded over a love of grunge and The Wilson Family, a folk band from County Durham.

It resulted in an unlikely partnership forged out of their common hometowns in the north-east of England. Recent album Nowhere and Everywhere was produced by David Brewis, from local band Field Music, and it explores regional stories that combine traditional and newly minted compositions.

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Recorded five years ago, but with a delayed release due to Covid, this is only their fifth live show. If they have any nerves about the new project then it’s not obvious from the warmth of their interactions, which would suggest they’ve been friends for decades. The sense of deep connection is also felt in their harmonised vocals, with Unthank’s cottony delivery wrapping around Smith’s baritone.

Their natural accents shine through, giving the duet ‘O Mary, Will You Go?’ a moving intimacy as the titular character is persuaded to emigrate for better times. Their cover of Lal Waterson’s ode to alcohol ‘Red Wine Promises’, prefaced by Unthank’s own story of drunkenness, encapsulates its earthiness and hard-won resilience. Best of all is Unthank-original ‘Seven Tears’, on which they’re joined by clarinettist Faye MacCalman and guitarist Rory Haye in gorgeous four-part harmonies.

If the set’s focus is on their vocals, then it’s not to downplay the importance of the arrangements. ‘Horumarye’ emulates the sound of wind whistling over the moors with droning harmonium, shrieking clarinet, and a bow being scraped across the cymbals. ‘What Maks Makems’, which sets words from a Tom Pickard poem to music by Smith, sees Unthank on cello and MacCalman on misty woodwind.

They finally cut loose on their encore, a non-album cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’. It gives Smith the chance to fully use his 1948 electric guitar (“it’s older than me dad!”) but the real pleasure is hearing Unthank’s voice pitched in a more folk-rock setting than usual. In bringing out the best in each other, it’s to be hoped the project continues into the now and ever.

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