Nick Small watches (and photographs) The Unthanks at Halifax Piece Hall.
I mentioned the newly restored Halifax Piece Hall on these pages in December and was consequently invited to go and see The Unthanks perform there just a couple of days later. This was a very welcome invitation as tickets for the event had sold out. The venue, temporarily erected within the Piece Hall’s piazza was called a Spiegeltent: an art nouveau style performance tent of a kind originating in late C19th Belgium.
The Piece Hall looked magical, the thoughtful lighting of the colonnades, the piazza floor and the cascades supplemented by the twinkling lights of the town’s Christmas tree. Light spilled from a large Hygge tipi tent, a design inspired by the Lavvu, a sort of mobile home for the nomadic Sami people of northern Scandinavia. Here, people huddled around the warm, flickering open fire, sipping mulled wine and chattering in the glow.
We become obsessed by light in the dark of December, starved of the good stuff as our golden orb spends far too much time bathing the southern Hemisphere with its rays. Candles, fireworks and fairy lights captivate us … some more than others. There are some houses around Halifax are so festooned with myriad LED decorations that they must be visible from the moon. Maybe we’re in denial. We’re not alone. In churches around Sweden “Lucia” is celebrated enthusiastically, a young girl playing the feted saint wearing a crown of candles. Even her name means “light”. The citizens of the Swedish town of Gavle build a giant Christmas goat out of straw every year, knowing that the local arsonists will find its allure irresistible …. the annual blaze lighting up the town.
So, into the darkness of the Spiegeltent. Chock full and murmuring. The faintest suggestion of stained glass and the shadows in the fabric folds of the tent roof the only vestiges of light. Well that and a standard lamp or two up on the stage. It’s a darkness that complements the less than cheery lyrical content of the songs being performed by The Unthanks for this one off show. The songs of Molly Drake, mother of the cult folky Nick, are not what you’d call cheery.
But the darkness also allows for the projection of a carefully curated selection of slides onto screens either side of the stage: scenes of Molly and the Drake family, doing what families do, unaware that they’d be watched by a crowd of strangers half a century later. Not that I found myself watching them much, so captivated was I by the sisters’ rather seductive and natural charm projecting from the homely stage set. Local by-laws meant that the volume was kept necessarily low … but that only forced the audience to listen more attentively. I wasn’t familiar with the material at all, but it mattered little as for two 45 minute sets I was spellbound, luxuriating in the kind of instinctive harmonies that only siblings can so effortlessly muster. The songs were interspersed with passages of spoken word, recorded by Gabrielle Drake, Nick’s talented sister.
Leaving the Spiegeltent afterwards, exiting into the lights of the Piece Hall and the seasonal pop up Bratwurst stalls was a little like walking out from a cinema on a warm sunny afternoon. The body jolted by the chilly winter air whilst the mind lingered within the snug tent, caressed by otherworldly voices. It only seemed right to find some equilibrium by dosing the physical being with some spicy mulled wine.