Friday, 26 October 2012

The Unthanks - 'Songs From The Shipyards' at The Purcell Room

This evening I went to see those Unthanks lasses perform their new record, 'Songs From The Shipyards' live at the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It's the soundtrack to a documentary made up of film clips over the years since 1910 about the shipyards on the River Tyne. The Unthanks - Rachel and Becky, Niopha, Chris and Adrian - sat underneath a big screen that showed the documentary and they sang and played along to it.

It's a collection of songs that describe the ups and downs of shipbuilding on the Tyne, of the men who built those ships that sailed the world and created trade routes that fed the country, defended our island  and went to war in the Falklands. The skyline of cranes, of ships being built beside the back to back terraced houses of Wallsend, the closure of Swan Hunter and Scotswood Road. I remember some of the scenes shown in the film, vague memories of skeletal cranes on the riverside and factories with walls black with coal dust and smoke. It's all so very different today.

I was particularly taken with the song 'Big Steamers' about those ships that roamed the oceans of the world bringing food back to our little island. It reminded me of my Dad who was in the merchant navy in his younger days, travelling round the coasts of Africa. He left the merchant navy to be an apprentice engineer and he then built the machines that built other things. None of my immediate family worked in the shipyards but they're part of the proud heritage of every Geordie.

There was also a touching version of 'Shipbuilding', the Robert Wyatt song made famous by Elvis Costello in the '80s. They sang it against footage from the Falklands war and groans at the sight of Maggie Thatcher. That sets the tone for the rest of the film and the record as the decline sets in and the shipyards close, with the refrain of 'You might steal our future but you'll not steal our glory'.

If you get the chance to see them on this current short tour then you should. And get the record. It's a melancholy feast and one I'll play for the memories. The Unthank sisters grew up on the banks of the Tyne in the same little village as me. I remember things that they won't because of the age difference, but it's lovely to hear them sing of things that mean something to me even though it's history to them. Thank you, lasses, it was lovely to see you again. It's a great record.

No comments: