Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Review: The Unthanks, 'How Wild The Wind Blows', The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford On Avon April 30th 2017

I had never heard of Molly Drake until a few months ago. This is how I discovered her. There is an English folk group called The Unthanks led by Rachel & Becky Unthank. I hadn't got any of their albums at the time but I had enjoyed the songs that I had heard and I saw them at Glastonbury Festival where they played with a full orchestra which was very impressive. Two of my friends Jacky & Bill from Yorkshire are big fans of the Unthanks.  I saw on the internet before Christmas that they were going to play in Bradford On Avon in April which is a very picturesque little town only eight miles from me. “That sounds like fun”, I thought to myself so I bought some tickets and invited my friends down for the weekend. I was really  looking forward to it. When I read more about this tour I discovered that they had deliberately chosen small venues which would be perfect for the intimate performance of the songs and poems of Molly Drake.

“Who on Earth is Molly Drake?”, I asked myself. I immediately googled Molly Drake and discovered via Wikipedia that she was none other than the mother of the legendary Nick Drake. Although I really like Nick Drake and am quite familiar with his best known songs and have one album called Way To Blue I’m not a fanatical fan like some completist’s who have to have everything he ever recorded. That’s why I hadn’t heard of Molly before. During her lifetime Molly never performed publicly or made any official recordings but I discovered that in the 1950’s her husband Rodney Drake had made some home recordings of Molly singing and playing the piano. Because of the increasing cult following  in her son’s life, attention passed to Molly and finally these recordings were assembled into a cd simply called Molly Drake and released by Squirrel Thing records in 2013.
I had read enough. I knew I had to get this cd, especially because it was issued on the same label as the Connie Converse album that I reviewed a year ago. I have always been fascinated by people who never really sought fame and fortune or had a brief flirtation with fame and then faded away but whose reputation has grown over the years due to the quality of their work. In the past as well as Connie I have written about the likes of Karen Dalton, Linda Perhacs, Annie Briggs, Vashti Bunyan. Sibylle Baier, Shelagh McDonald, Mellow Candle, Thomas Fraser, Jonathon Kelly, Jackson C Frank and many more.  I sent off to Germany for a copy because I couldn’t see one available in Britain and a few days later it popped through my letterbox. They had done an excellent job in the design of the cd with an attractive booklet with Molly’s story written by her daughter who is the actress Gabrielle Drake and contains lots of photos of Molly. I was a bit disappointed though because I was expecting a 45 page booklet of Molly’s poems to be included but alas there wasn’t. Maybe that was only with the first pressing of the album.

Just after Christmas I got around to giving the cd a good listen. The whole album is only 37 minutes long and there are 19 songs so you can see how short most of the songs are. Molly has a very English middle-class voice and sings in a very formal style. You can tell that the recording was made in the fifties. There is one song though called Poor Mum which almost sounds like a riposte to Nick’s song Poor Boy. If it was recorded in the 50’s then it is strangely prophetic. They have done a great job of mastering this cd from reel to reel 60 year old tapes but there is still some crackle and hiss on some songs but in a way that gives those songs a haunting ghost-like quality. The producer Joe Boyd said that these songs are the missing link in the Nick Drake story. I can understand what he means because the words do seem to have a feeling of quiet desperation and melancholy and explore the fragility of happiness which makes you think that Nick might have inherited a lot of his personality from his mother as well as a love of music.

Three months went by and Winter changed to Spring. I saw on the internet that the album by The Unthanks called 'The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake' could now be ordered online ahead of it's official release date so I ordered it and while I was at it I ordered their book called 'The Unthanks Memory Book' as well and I resolved to take it along to the gig and get it signed. I also took Molly's album along in the hope that her daughter Gabrielle would be there on the evening to sign that.

                                                     Finally the big night arrived. I had never been to the Wiltshire Music Centre before but it is a fabulous little purpose built venue and the little town of Bradford On Avon is lucky to have such a nice venue. The sound quality in there is absolutely perfect. The stage set was designed very theatrically with chairs and lamps so in the small intimate setting you would almost believe that you were in Molly's living room. As well as Becky & Rachel singing they also had a piano player, bass player, clarinet & violin, all of whom performed brilliantly. I must say that Rachel & Becky's harmonies are among the best I have ever heard. They also had a screen at the back on which they showed photos and rare footage of Molly with Nick & Gabrielle Drake. I didn't take my notebook along to write the setlist but my favourite songs of the evening included Weaver Bird, Happiness, How Wild The Wind Blows, What Can A Song Do For You?, I Remember, Never Pine For The Old Love, Poor Mum and Soft Shelled Crabs. I can't remember the titles of the other songs but I enjoyed ever single song. In between the songs there was the voice of Gabrielle reciting her mothers poems along with pictures projected on the screen which was very moving.

                                                                                          The evening was divided into two halves and during the intermission I managed to get Becky & Rachel to sign my book and in the absence of Gabrielle, Becky kindly signed my Molly Drake CD. I also managed to get a photo with Rachel. They are really nice friendly people. As an encore they sang their version of Nick Drake's song Riverman and one other song that I don't know the name of. The show lasted about two hours and I must say it was one of the best evenings of music I have had in a long time so thank you very much to The Unthanks for a great night and spreading the word about the legacy of Molly Drake. I urge you to try and get a ticket to see The Unthanks on this tour if any are still available and buy their album as well because it is great.

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