Live review

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, Bon Iver, Dawn Kinnard: Uncut @ The Great Escape, May 17, 2008

We're changing venues tonight – instead of the Pressure Point Uncut have moved to the beautiful Spiegeltent, kind of a cross between a circus tent and a mirrored boudoir. Aside from the creaking wooden floors, it's perfect.

It should hardly be surprising after Thursday's performance, but Bon Iver draws the biggest crowd, perhaps of Uncut's weekend. People are really going for it too, with one guy punching the air to every lyric as if he's at a Journey gig. I'm not sure I've seen this kind of devotion since Brian Wilson toured 'Smile' in 2004 – although it would have to be pretty extreme to match the fervour of that gig.

Justin Vernon turns out a solid set, once again getting the crowd to sing along on 'The Wolves' and ending some tracks in a hail of feedback. The skeletal album closer 'Re: Stacks' is delivered by Vernon without his two band mates, once again to hushed silence.

I'm not sure I quite share the total appreciation of the crowd, but Vernon certainly pulled off a flawless performance, complete with his usual Wisconsin charm.

Next up is Pennsylvanian Dawn Kinnard. Compared in the past to Dusty Springfield, the tall, thin singer is more like a female Bill Callahan after a few listens to John Lennon's early solo work. Joined by a pianist, Kinnard hisses out her mostly melancholic lyrics in a wavering, coquettish smoker's voice, lightly strumming her guitar and tapping the side of it inbetween (just to keep time, mind you, not in that horrendous Newton Faulkner style).

She cuts quite an imposing figure, dressed in a smart red skirt and side-buttoned top like an air hostess, and everyone in the Spiegeltent is pretty rapt – if only to hear what she whispers in the quieter moments of her songs. The tent is fairly quiet, however, especially when compared to Bon Iver's set, who seems to have it unfairly sewn up in that respect.

Highlights of Kinnard's set include single 'The Devil's Flame', the unstable 'Bicycle' and the closing Americana of 'Lean To The Glass', which Kinnard performs alone. However, it's hard to shake a slight feeling that her songwriting isn't yet fully developed. She's certainly worth a listen, however.

Rachel Unthank And The Winterset have been one of the most talked-about folk groups recently and, as a consequence, I was partly expecting one of those anodyne and purist Radio 2 Folk Award acts, but no – Rachel Unthank And The Winterset are phenomenally good.

The two Unthank sisters, Rachel and Becky, have a real engaging charm onstage, and their voices sound better than what I've heard from them on record, Rachel's having a typical cut-glass folk edge, with Becky's huskier and softer – both of them sing in the natural Northumbrian accent, of course.

The music they, along with Stef Conner on piano and vocals and Niopha Keegan on fiddle, accordion and voice, create is the real key to their appeal, however. Traditional tracks are simultaneously brought back to their roots and modernised, with one of the accordion-led pieces in particular sounding not unlike a skeletal piece from Nico's avant-drone masterpieces 'The Marble Index' or 'Desertshore'.

Conner's piano playing likewise mixes up music hall blowsiness with classical cadences and avant-garde sections, while Keegan's subtle violin brings in more of an Irish feel to many of the songs.

Most of the ballads they perform are from the Tyneside folk tradition, including one that appears to be in ancient Geordie dialect. Rachel still gets the crowd joining in on a couple of songs, though, including 'Blue's Gaen Oot O'the Fashion', although she, of course, makes us sing in a Geordie accent.

Pretty much all the songs they perform are gloriously sad, as most folk songs are, even if they explore mundane topics like the opening 'On A Monday Morning'. The group also make a habit of covering more recent songs, including Robert Wyatt's timeless 'Sea Song' which, sung by Becky and featuring four-part harmonies at its conclusion, is a fitting tribute, and one which Wyatt apparently appreciates.

Finishing with a song about 'Hexham Shire', the group are called back by the devoted crowd to perform an encore (perhaps, following Yeasayer yesterday, the second in the history of The Great Escape?). After performing an a cappella track, once again underpinned by a drone, they are allowed to leave the stage to riotous applause.

Uncut's time at The Great Escape couldn't really have ended any better; after that stunning performance, it's time to leave Brighton once and for all.

Check out our review of Broken Records and Yeasayer, and our report on the first night featuring Bon Iver, Wild Beasts and No Age.


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