THE UNTHANKS Live at Vicar Street, Dublin (25 May 2017)

Unthanks Live

The dark stage is bedecked with an array of lamps (of the standard and table varieties), interspersed with rattan chairs. The grand piano and elegantly wrought music stands suggest a more genteel era of afternoon tea dances – if you overlook the modern paraphernalia of cables and microphones.

The voice of Gabrielle Drake reading her mother’s poem ‘Time’ penetrates the gloom and is followed by a recording of Molly Drake herself, singing the engagingly humorous and self-referential ‘Funny Little Tune’. Without any preamble, The Unthanks launch straight into ‘What Can A Song Do To You’, as good an evocation of the power of memory as any.

In fact, not a word is spoken to the audience until around two-thirds of the way through the first set. Wisely, the band focuses on allowing these songs and poems to speak for themselves. When they do finally break the wall, it’s mainly to reassure us that they’ve now got “the cheery songs” out of the way.

It’s true that this album, the Molly Drake oeuvre, isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, and this is as introspective a set as they come, with more shade than light. Literally as well as figuratively: the set is deliberately kept low-lit throughout. As Molly Drake said, “The happy and enduring things do not evoke or provoke poetry”.

But these clouds do have silver linings. There is lightness and dry wit in the observations of life. There’s even a little optimism. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is fine advice, as is ‘Dream Your Dreams’. ‘Poor Mum’ is a call to break the confines of a societal label. What’s more, the projections of stills and archive footage of Molly Drake encourage us view her as a person: a wife, a mother and – most of all – a woman of style and humour.

The set consists entirely of the ‘Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake’ album (plus the 8-track ‘Extras’), thoughtfully re-ordered to evoke different moods in the audience. The darkest part of the set is at the start, with a gentle lightening of mood as the show progresses. There’s no adornment from their back catalogue, nothing to break the spell. And a spell is cast, the crowd seeming to hold its breath while Rachel and Becky sing their impeccable harmonies. Although they always seem transported somewhere else entirely when they sing, they are still delightfully grounded performers, briskly and unfussily brushing off a couple of minor fluffs to delighted applause.

The only non-Molly Drake song of the evening is Becky’s encore cover of Nick Drake’sRiver Man, followed by Rachel taking lead on ‘Dream Your Dreams’. A brief reprise of this song leaves us with the image of Molly Drake smiling and raising a glass to us all in the final frame.

Having been reverentially silent during the songs, the crowd delivers a standing ovation for the band at the end, and one richly deserved for such a beautifully realised performance of an eclectic set.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: http://www.the-unthanks.com