The Unthanks, Thame Towersey Festival, 23 August 2019

Here’s a flashback to sunnier, happier times. It’s not often that you’ll catch me at an outdoor music festival, but I’m happy to make an exception for Towersey, a smallish folk-based affair sitting pretty near the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Family connections in the area have brought me to Towersey on a number of occasions, most notably in 2007 when I saw the great English folk singer John Tams of Home Service in a duo setting with his long-time collaborator Barry Coope. I didn’t cross paths with Tams again until 2011, when Home Service played a series of triumphant reunion concerts that reasserted their position as the lost heroes of British electric folk music. Tams left the group a few years ago, following which they lost their way somewhat, but lately he seems to have rejoined. I hope to see them again one day, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I digress.

Towersey Festival has weathered a few storms in recent years, including a change of location in 2015 and another one on the horizon this year. Nevertheless it remains a very pleasant place to spend an August Bank Holiday weekend, with a great family-friendly vibe, good bars and stalls, and (most importantly) its feet firmly planted in the living tradition of English folk music. On a warm, sunny evening last August, then, I was very happy to make the acquaintance of The Unthanks for the first time. A standing-room-only audience saw this gifted group of singers and musicians cast a decidedly uncanny spell, their bewitching voices echoing around the large tent to spellbinding effect.

Right from the off, The Unthanks declared an affinity with the music of the present by covering a Richard Dawson song, “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed”. This stunning a capella number set the tone perfectly for the evening, its terrorstruck imagery (“I awake to the screech of a fox in the street/Carrying your soul in its teeth through the snow”) inscribed in every breath of the forlorn harmonies uttered by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and co-singer Niopha Keegan.

As the concert progressed, the full range of the group’s influences and parallels became clear as The Unthanks traced a path through a rich and vibrant seam of mythical English culture. There were songs based on poems by Emily Brontë (“The soft unclouded blue of air”, “Shall earth no more inspire thee”), a song by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick (“What can a song do to you?”) and the group’s take on Elvis Costello’s classic “Shipbuilding”. YouTube tells me that The Unthanks’ repertoire also includes a ravishing cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, which I would happily have traded for what was in truth a rather inert version of “Shipbuilding”. No-one sings “Shipbuilding” like Costello, not The Unthanks (despite their north-eastern roots) and certainly not Robert Wyatt, the universal acclaim for whose version I find frankly baffling.

Most dramatically, the group reached for a song from Lines: Part One, their 2018 tribute to the Hull-born fisheries worker and campaigner Lillian Bilocca with lyrics by the acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake. “A Whistling Woman” saw Keegan’s exquisite violin and Adrian McNally’s stinging piano lines thread their way through the singers’ sinister invocation of Peake’s text: “A man may do a thousand things, but a whistling woman may bring the Devil out of his den.” It was the kind of moment that brought a pitiless chill to an otherwise cloudless summer’s evening.

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