Saturday, 22 September 2007

Rachel Unthank & Devon Sproule

The Spitz, Friday 21 September

Wonderful performances from Rachel Unthank & the Winterset and Devon Sproule ensured that the last gig I'll ever see at The Spitz was memorable.

I first saw Rachel Unthank & the Winterset in an incredible showcase at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year. I'd never heard of them before but became an immediate convert to their tales of Scotch border disputes, booze and the trials of getting out of bed in the morning.

Unlike a lot of English folk music, Rachel and co don't trot out many songs about shepherds toiling in the fields or fair maidens courting young squires. Instead, their music shares the darkness of much of the American music I love (they've covered Bonnie Prince Billy).

Friday's set highlighted all that's great about the band. As well as their versions of old Northumbrian folk songs, they performed emotional covers of Robert Wyatt's Sea Song (with its memorable lyrics "Your skin shining softly in the moonlight/Partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale") and Anthony & The Johnson's For Today I Am A Boy.

Rachel's and her younger sister Becky's Geordie accents add stacks of character to the songs, as does their occasional clogging. Pianist Belinda O'Hooley who until joining the Winterset, was a folk virgin whose old day job was playing cabaret classics in old peoples' homes, is hilarious, and adds light relief amid some pretty sad songs. A string quartet and double bass augmented fiddle player Niopha Keegan on a couple of songs, all crowded onto the small Spitz stage.

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset should convert even those who think they don't like folk music.

Hear Rachel Unterthank & The Winterset at

Buy their albums at

The night's other attraction was Virginia-based singer-songwriter Devon Sproule (pronounced, I think "Sproll"). I heard Devon for the first time a few weeks ago on the very enjoyable radio show my friend Rob Chester presents with his girlfriend Jess at the University of Maryland.

Her voice reminds me a bit of Laura Cantrell's and she's got a jazzy approach to folky sounding songs a la Jolie Holland and Po' Girl.

Not only are her songs witty and playful but she's got a great stage presence and nifty vintage threads. An added bonus was the appearance of pedal steel guitar king BJ Cole for most of Devon's half hour set.

Devon joins an increasing list of attractive red-headed singer-songwriters whose albums are in regular rotation on my stereo (see also Exhibit A and Exhibit B).

Hear Devon Sproule at

Buy Devon Sproule's new record at

The only downer of the night is the fact that I'll never see another gig at The Spitz. As you may know, their landlord has ordered them out after 11 years. I've probably only been to the Spitz half a dozen or so times since I've lived in London but it's a great venue which I'll miss. Fingers crossed that a replacement is found that matches the current one.


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