It is a bustling Thursday evening in North London, with hordes of football fans making their way to see Arsenal play at home. But the roar of the city can’t penetrate the peaceful majesty of the Union Chapel, with its huge stained glass windows lustrous in the setting sun. A perfect haven to enjoy the winsome folk magick that the evening has to offer. First up is contemporary fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke accompanied by Kit Downes on the organ. Their compositions, played with exquisite energy and precision, take my untrained folk ear from the traditional landscape of the windswept coast, hearth fires and yearning to a fresher, more unexpected destination with drones and melodies that showcase the innate qualities of the instruments they flow from. O’Rourke’s latest project, a musical response to the 365 short story collection by fellow Scot James Robertson for which he has written a tune every day for a year, gives a sense of the energy and ambition of his music. He read one of Robertson’s stories, Freedom, imagining the playful musings of a fox and hound on their respective lots and it certainly left me wanting to read more. The music these tales have inspired is also definitely worth exploring. 365: Vol. 1 was released in May 2018 and Vol. 2 will be out in August 2019.
Then in the now dark hush of the chapel, the main event. Rachel and Becky Unthank, joined by Niopha Keegan (who plays violin and viola in the Unthanks) to make a glorious vocal trio. The two sisters voices, weaving together like resonant threads since childhood, are given a shining extra dimension with the addition of Niopha’s tone and the songs of her second generation Irish heritage. The breathy, ethereal beauty of their harmonies is underscored by the strength of their unity. Songs full of courting, weddings, bees, babies and domestic violence bring to life the voices of regional women through the ages. The themes of love, motherhood and community are ever present. At one point in the set, Becky and Niopha go to their babies who are both 7 months old and with them on tour, leaving Rachel to sing a Newcastle lullaby about a complicated and ultimately violent relationship which would have been addressed to a baby on the knee. Her voice is the perfect instrument for the tenderness and hurt. Other highlights of the set include a song from Molly Drake and Magpie, which featured on the unassuming BBC2 comedy Detectorists. After a slightly jarring gospel interlude with one of their touring support acts, the trio sing the rousing anthem Bread and Roses, letting the politics of the song speak for itself. Their whole performance glows with a gentle feminism steeped in the long tradition of standing together and singing your heart out.