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The Unthanks and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Saturday 19 March 2016

You really don't have to have been in the city of Liverpool too long before The Beatles enter your mind; it really comes at you almost subliminally, yet with a discernible force, whether it comes to you by way of the sound of Fab Four blaring out from the taxi radio as it swings by the imposing Radio City tower, or maybe just as the iconic Magical Mystery Tour bus flies by the taxi outside Lewis's department store, the tour guide no doubt dropping the name George Harrison to spellbound tourists onboard. Then again it might be a party of Japanese schoolgirls asking the way to the Cavern Club or the myriad of memorabilia items in the various shop windows along Mathew Street. Liverpool could not escape the legacy of the 1960s even if she wanted to.

It's not just The Beatles though, or for that matter the whole Mersey Beat sound that Liverpool is famous for; the city has a 175 year old relationship with Classical music as well. Midway between the brooding Anglican Liverpool Cathedral at the top of Hope Street and the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, known locally as 'Paddy's Wigwam', at the other end, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall stands with its brutal brickwork dominating the street where it has stood since it was rebuilt in 1939. Inside the building tonight, the foyer was busting with activity as visitors picked up their tickets, shuffled to their seats and prepared themselves for something beautiful. Musicians from the orchestra were already milling about the stage tuning their respective instruments and adjusting music stands, microphone stands and stage monitors as the hall filled to capacity. Tonight, under the rather lofty heading, A Symphonic Adventure with The Unthanks: Folk Songs Old and New, we would see for the first time, one of the most talked about bands on the current folk music scene performing with a full 60-odd piece philharmonic orchestra as part of the Philharmonic's 175th anniversary programme, which also sees various other events at the venue in a season of special concerts.

Taking their usual places in the centre of the stage were Rachel and Becky Unthank, slightly further apart from one another than usual, the centre space reserved for the charismatic orchestra conductor Charles Hazlewood, whose highly choreographed body movements would become legendary to those present over the next couple of hours. With all the orchestral arrangements carefully worked out by Adrian McNally, no mean feat for a musician who claims not to read or write music, with technical assistance from Peter Riley (who definitely does), the band were prepared to take a leap into the relatively unknown tonight, with an adventurous excursion into to a rather different musical world.

Opening with Ma Bonnie Lad swiftly followed by Madam, from the band's current album MOUNT THE AIR, the musicians soon demonstrated that this sort of collaboration can work if enough love and care is put into it. You sensed immediately that this wasn't worked up in a couple of rehearsals back at McNally Acres. Showcasing new original compositions such as the epic Foundling and the topical Hymn for Syria, as well as more familiar pieces including Gan to the Kye, The Romantic Tees and Testimony of Patience Kershaw, each perfectly suited to larger scale arrangements, the Unthanks soon settled into their surroundings and enjoyed being a part of such a large scale project, if somewhat nervously. Once in full swing, Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk appeared to transport the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall into a kind of turn of the century Moulin Rouge, with its swirling circus-like middle section, which I'm sure the brass section relished in.

The two sets proved to be musically adventurous, technically interesting and hugely enjoyable with some particularly inspired choices such as Lal Waterson's At First She Starts and Mr and Mrs Wyatt's Out of the Blue, yet it was the finale that placed tonight's concert in the 'landmark achievement' bracket of the band's ten year career, with superb arrangements of both the King Crimson song Starless and the band's own epic Mount the Air which stirred those all too familiar butterflies, followed by a deserved ovation which lasted several minutes.

After the concert, Adrian, Rachel, Becky and Charles fielded questions in pre-arranged Q&A in the theatre bar, where they were happy to talk about the concert itself and their music in general. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky