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thanks to the unthanks

The latest chapter in a musical story I have followed for the past three decades is currently being played out at venues across the UK.

The Unthanks – sisters Rachel and Becky with a wonderfully sympathetic band of supporting musicians – are touring their show ‘How Wild The Wind Blows,’ featuring the songs and poems of Molly Drake.

Regular visitors to this blog will know Molly as the mother of the singer-songwriter Nick Drake, whose story I played a small part in telling via two radio documentaries – ‘Fruit Tree: The Nick Drake Story’ (1998) narrated by Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson who played on Nick’s debut album, and 2004’s ‘Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake,’ narrated by Brad Pitt.

One of the by-products of researching Nick’s story was that I met and then interviewed Molly in 1992 very shortly before she died, and long long before Nick’s reputation as an influential artist had reached its current level of worldwide awareness.

In that interview, Molly’s songwriting was briefly touched upon, but it was 2013 before recordings of her songs, recorded on a reel-to reel tape recorder by husband Rodney in the 1950s and 60s, found their way to the public via a limited edition cd.

Now thanks to the good offices of the Drake Estate and Gabrielle Drake, Molly’s daughter and Nick’s sister, we can enjoy a 100-minute stage show in which The Unthanks use their skills as folk performers to bring Molly’s songs to a wider audience.

In the performance I witnessed at the magnificent City Varieties theatre in Leeds, the old adage that a good song can stand different interpretations was writ large.

On the drive to West Yorkshire, I’d listened to the Unthanks new ‘Molly Drake’ album – ‘Diversions, Vol. 4’ – and found myself amazed by what musicians from a different world had done with them in terms of performance and arrangements.

In ‘live’ performance, there was a palpable magic as singers Rachel and Becky took turns to lead each song and blended their distinctive voices throughout, supported by Adrian McNally (piano and voice), Niopha Keegan (violin, viola, voice), Chris Price (double bass, guitar, voice) and Faye MacCalman (clarinet, tenor sax).

The show’s staging – a drawing room styled-backdrop dotted with standard lamps, accompanied by screen projections of photos and home movie footage, plus recordings of Molly’s poems, read by Gabrielle – created the sense of a family evening at home, which is where these songs and poems had first been performed.

A particular highlight was the encore of Nick’s ‘River Man’ – a tune that I’ve heard hundreds of times and heard interpreted by many other singers – but which Becky Unthank, singing the lead on, took to new places, both musically and emotionally.

‘How Wild The Wind Blows’ certainly explores life’s weightier themes – grief, loss, love, fear – but I thought the show was a triumph of musicality and communication, encouraged by a rapt and supportive audience.

The UK tour is nearing its end, but it’s one I would highly recommend seeing whether you’re a fan of Molly’s music, or just enjoy hearing good songs performed in an engaging way.

 

The Unthanks official website

Coda:

This Simon Mayo interview with Gabrielle Drake from 2004, which I only discovered very recently, is further illustration of how long it can take for art to find an appreciative audience ……

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