I confess I don’t gravitate towards folk music on a day to day basis, but when I hear it live I’m reminded how life affirming and quite wonderful it can be. Afterwards, I’ll vow to pay it more attention in my own time, but never do.

So I’m here to see The Unthanks. An ensemble who are pretty highly regarded in folk circles (and indeed beyond), enjoying critical acclaim since their beginnings in 2004, whilst winning numerous folk awards. The group started out life as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky from Northumberland. In 2009 they had a reshuffle of musicians and became The Unthanks.  Their fourth album, The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band was released in July this year and is considered to be quite a mix of folk traditionalism with subversive modern twists.  It’s full of really big sounds, rich layers of brass instruments, pianos and harmonies that send your imagination off into a magical time when it was always summer or Christmas.

We’re at Gorilla Stage Club on Whitworth Street. It’s a sold out venue of 200 and is seated.

But this evening isn’t really an Unthanks gig at all, it’s a live ‘audio-visual event’ entitled:  ‘The Unthanks present Songs from the Shipyards’ which is the score they wrote to accompany the film by Richard Fenwick.  So really, we are here to watch a film and learn about the rise and fall of the shipbuilding industry in the North East.  The Unthanks narrate for us their own memories of their homeland and its heritage using their poignant lyrics and warm melodies.

They may have been quite subversive with the folk genre of late but I suppose this is where the tradition of folk music has its heart – songs that describe a burgeoning of hope, community spirit, hardship and struggle.

They open the set with a little animation of two mice who fall in love; the male mouse goes to war and is killed, leaving his wife and mice children alone. Then Rachel and Becky sing: “I was born in the shadow of a Fairfield crane, listening to the shipyard sounds”.

As with any good musical score, you are drawn into the whole experience and can forget you are sat in front of 5 mercury music prize nominees. The songs blend in well together as the narrative tracks Tyneside shipbuilders through the creation of 250 thousand tonne ships built and set sail to war-torn seas. The songs lurch from nostalgic refrains to jolly ditties:  “All in a day Willy, she’s leaving today. Do you recall Willy, the birth place at the Water’s edge? Will they ever learn Willy, the life that was welded by the river?”  We see the inevitable demise of the industry, played out to us with   “And the Tyne slides by, the seagulls cry, ships silent at the riverside”.

The film evokes a response from us as an audience. We get treated to interviews with genial rustic Geordies who occasionally get a laugh.  There are boos and hisses when Thatcher emerges declaring the ‘modernisation of times’.  The band sing out in their 5 part harmonies: “A museum now there down on the yard. Just a piece of history now they’ve had their day, down on the yard”

The film leaves us quite philosophical and reflective: “You might steal our future, but you’ll never steal our glory, only be remembered for what we’ve done”.

The poetic and earthy lyrics are what stand out for me most this evening.  This format really reveals their fantastic song writing quality. Often the instruments are set to one side and we hear only the wonderful lone harmonies.

If you came to be uplifted and hear some jolly tunes, you’d be a little disappointed but there is very little to be critical of here in terms of music quality;  beautiful lyrics, fantastic harmonies, lovely toned voices.   I admire their boldness to put on hold touring their very successful fourth album and opt to tour this new project instead.  I’d have liked to have seen them perform their previous material but this was a new and different experience altogether.

I think I’ll try to pay folk music more attention from now on…

The album Songs from the Shipyards is released on 5th November 2012