Alongside their regular albums, The Unthanks have released a series of “Diversions”; albums that focus on a particular theme or style.  The latest of these is How Wild The Wind Blows – The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake.  Molly was the mother of legendary folk-rock singer songwriter Nick Drake and actress Gabrielle Drake.  Molly wrote her songs and poems purely as a form of self-expression, they were never intended for public consumption.  However, in response to Nick Drake’s enduring popularity, a selection of her songs recorded at home by her husband in the 1940’s was released as a limited edition album.  Now, with the support and assistance of Gabrielle, The Unthanks are bringing Molly’s songs and poems to a much wider audience.It may sound  strange at first  that a Northumbrian folk group who have previously explored songs about  shipyards and pigeon fanciers,  and have recorded more than one song featuring cows,  should be interested in the works of an upper middle class lady who was raised in India during the last days of the British Empire.  If you have heard Molly’s songs though, it’s not so surprising.  Molly’s Received Pronunciation diction with its cut glass consonants and rounded vowels couldn’t be further from Rachel and Becky Unthanks’ tones but Molly never over sings; there is no forced vibrato or shrill operatic efforts.  These songs are sung straight from the heart.  Molly’s songs also address universal themes: the search for happiness, disappointment in love.  This may have  been  folk music for folk who live in big houses but it remains folk music nevertheless.

“We were a lot noisier the last time we were here.” Becky tells us at one point “We had drums and clogs and all sorts.”  The all sorts included a trumpet player and a string section and the number of Unthanks on stage easily extended into double figures.  Tonight we have a chamber version of the band; Unthank regulars Rachael and Becky on vocals, Adrian McNally on piano and vocals, Niopha Keegan on violin, viola and vocals and Chris Price on double bass, lap steel guitar and vocals are joined by new Unthank Faye MacCalman on clarinet and tenor sax.  The stage is decked out like an elegant English parlour – standard lamps and table lamps all around with white cane chairs for Rachael and Becky to sit in when they are not singing.  A pair of curtains draped at the real of the stage double as projection screens.  Court shoes, not clogs, are the footwear of choice tonight – for the ladies in the band at least.

The show opens with Dog On The Wheel,  one of Molly’s poems, recited by her daughter Gabrielle.  The band blend into Happiness in which Molly likens an attempt  to capture happiness as being like trying to catch a bird with 20 wings; no matter how hard you try you will never succeed. Little Weaver Bird offers advice to shake off sadness and get busy building a life; advice that is clearly targeted at the singer rather than the bird the song is sung to.

Dream Your Dreams proposes that dreams rather than reality keeps the world turning.  Molly’s original is somewhat bleak but The Unthanks find the hope in the heart of the song and transform it into something triumphant.  Molly come close to humour on I Remember in which she recalls past times with a loved one and realises that rather than these being shared experiences, their memories are very different.  “I remember firelight, you remember smoke…I remember oranges, you remember dust…I had thought that we were ‘we’  but we were  ‘you and me’.”  There is a slight archness in Molly’s delivery, you can imagine dinner guests laughing politely in all the appropriate places, but Rachael and Becky don’t play it for laughs and the song is all the better for it.

It’s clear from tonight’s performance that The Unthanks have developed a close affinity with Molly’s music and they treat every piece with respect and affection that it deserves.  When it comes time for an encore it is immediately obvious that anything from the band’s own body simply would not fit with the tone of the evening and so we are treated to a breathtakingly beautiful version of Nick Drake’s River Man and a rousing reprise of Dream Your Dreams.

While it seems certain that Molly Drake had no desire for her songs and poems to reach a wider audience than her family and friends, it is even more certain that had her son not achieved an enduring fame,  these songs would not now be being performed and appreciated.  We can only thank Gabrielle Drake’s stewardship of her mother’s legacy and The Unthanks’ musical insight for giving these songs the audience they deserve.


John Scott

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