LIVE: Unthank : Smith / Alex Rex – Birmingham Hare & Hounds, 29/03/2023

LIVE: Unthank : Smith / Alex Rex – Birmingham Hare & Hounds, 29/03/2023

It’s been about six weeks since Nowhere and Everywhere, an album from the two very different and yet in some ways very similar North Eastern musicians Rachel Unthank (of The Unthanks) and Paul Smith (of Maximo Park) was released, and now the pair are in town as part of a tour to celebrate the record (a nicer word than promote, and more apt, as both seem genuinely delighted to have the opportunity).

In their band for the night are three players who make up tonight’s support act Alex Rex, a shapeshifting outfit rotating around Trembling BellsAlex Neilson (this evening also incorporating clarinettist Faye MacCalman and guitarist Rory Haye). Their own performance begins with a supernatural psych-folk wig out but settles down into a more straightforward set, highlights including ‘The Great Experiment’, from 2021’s Paradise and them managing to get the audience to sing along to the lyrics “I am worn out from the inside out” later in the set, Neilson having the tricky dual role of drums and vocals but managing both admirably.

Unthank : Smith

When Unthank : Smith duly arrive, Rachel’s first comment is on the size of the audience, (the larger of the Hare & Hounds two venues is very well populated tonight), and Paul explains that the various band members will stay on stage whether they are playing or not on each song, due to having to navigate through the crowd to get on and off the stage!

Their performance starts, as does the album, with the unaccompanied ‘Captain Bover’, and if a pin had been dropped in the crowd it would surely have been heard. As on the record, the different textures of their voices, as well as the North Eastern variations, (Rachel from Tyneside and Paul from Teeside) , fit together to stunning effect. The setting allows for a kind of ‘an evening with’ format, with stories of the songs’ origins linking them together; ‘Captain Bover’ being a traditional tale of an unpopular press-ganging sea captain, with an accompanying tale from Rachel of the people of Newcastle turning their backs on the captain’s funeral procession. Next, ‘Robert Kay’ is a Paul Smith original about a Teeside soldier who died in World War 1, which brings in Paul’s guitar and MacCalman’s wonderful clarinet, and gently raises the volume, the two voices again combining to great effect.

Neilson’s drums appear for the first time on ‘The Natural Urge’, (he also played on the record), an atmospheric song about history repeating itself in the field of human conflict. That title is somehow pretty Maximo, the song not so much! Paul’s own solo records have perhaps included the songs that he considered didn’t fit his ‘day job’ band, (and great they have been too), but Unthank : Smith is a different proposition yet, the pair perfectly in tune, literally and figuratively, with their love of traditional tales and an apparent thirst for knowledge of material to inspire their storied songs.

Rachel Unthank

Rachel Unthank possibly introduces the sound of the harmonium to the Hare & Hounds for the first time on ‘Horumarye’’, a cover of a song by Teeside folk artist Graeme Miles that brings to mind the eerily brilliant sound of ‘Come Here My Love’ as rendered by This Mortal Coil. The instrument will make further appearances through the evening. There’s even a joke from Rachel between songs – it wouldn’t make a lot of sense here without the accompanying accent, however!

There’s a cheer from the crowd at the mention of folk legend Lal Waterson ahead of a ‘voices only’ cover of her ‘Red Wine Promises’ before playful swipes at Sunderland (the record was recorded there) leading into ‘What Maks Makems’ (created using words from poet Tom Pickard), the duo explaining that they didn’t want to leave their neighbouring Wearsiders out of the album.

A highlight of Nowhere and Everywhere was Rachel’s ‘Seven Tears’ , the initial euphoria of realising it wasn’t going to be a cover of the Goombay Dance Band’s horrendous 1982 chart-topper increasing on hearing the track, with its circular, beautiful lyrics about crying seven tears into the sea to summon up a selkie lover, (a selkie, of course, being a creature taking on the form of a seal in the water and a human on land). The version tonight is stunning, the band providing yet more vocals to accompany the duo.

‘Lord Bateman’ brings the main set to a close, a collaboration between Paul and Rachel around more discovered lyrics, this time with the help (on the record) of The KeelersPeter Wood. The version tonight showcases the five musicians on the stage who are a very coherent unit, really adding further to the recorded version, as they have all evening.

With the crowd and the venue’s layout, the audience are asked by Paul to pretend that they have left the stage and returned for an encore, an unaccompanied ‘The King’, (apparently a Boxing Day favourite of Rachel), and ending the night with a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, Rachel confessing that she always dreamed of being in a folk rock band! It brings the curtain down on a night where Nowhere and Everywhere has been brought to life by its creators, both Unthank and Smith charming company, self-effacing to a fault and extremely likeable throughout.

Paul Smith
Back to top