The Unthanks play Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, Union Chapel, Islington

4.00

Ways to stay warm under the covers

Rachel and Becky Unthank have often covered songs by Robert Wyatt or Antony Hegarty in their live set, so it was a simple step to go the whole hog and devote an entire show to the two writers' work.

It is an idea the girls call "a nice Christmas treat" for themselves. And for us, too.

It is not hard to see the appeal of the two men's work. Wyatt and Hegarty are vocal stylists working outside the mainstream, reluctant to sacrifice their individuality – and their vulnerability – to the brutish instincts of Anglo-American popular culture. This parallels the way the Unthanks' voices seem to co-exist in an enchanted space, gossamer-light yet fiercely proud, protective of their north-eastern roots. And all four singers cannot help but be political.

For tonight's show, those light and airy voices are borne aloft by sparse and gentle accompaniment – the merest hints of piano, harmonium or accordion, the tiniest taps of brushes on cymbals, the paw-pad tread of double bass – and string quartet arrangements that range from sweet to astringent. The collective restraint enables the sisters to animate the songs with the subtlest of accents and emphases. Becky's voice is breathy and soft on "Bird Gehrl" and "You Are the Treasure"; Rachel's is higher and more fragile on "Man is the Baby" and "Out of the Blue".

On a song like Hegarty's "Paddy's Gone", the simplicity and fragility of the sentiment ("Loved that man/ Scared without him/ Paddy's gone/ For a long time") is conveyed perfectly by the directness of the delivery. On "Another World" the plaintive plea is underscored by tiny weeping phrases of bowed saw. Introducing "For Today I Am a Boy", Rachel says it is apt for her sister to sing it, as when Becky was very young she believed she would become a boy when she reached their brother's age. Then again, she adds, it wasn't a belief that was confined to humans – Becky also believed she would transform into a dog when she reached their pet's age, and this excited her more because it would happen sooner.

If the first half of the show is the more delicate, the second half, consisting of songs by Robert Wyatt, is presented more diversely, with the promised clog-dancing bowling "Dondestan" along, Becky's feet a blur of double-time rhythm alongside her sister's more simple time-keeping. Rachel serves a similar function on the evening's highlight, "Sea Song", tick-tocking her heels beneath the lilting accordion and harmonies and Becky's enchanting delivery of this most moving of Wyatt's melodies. Elsewhere, "Soup Song" – a silly piece about a bit of bacon in a pot – is accompanied, aptly, by ukulele and double bass and the more exacting arrangement of "Cuckoo Madame" recalls the furrow-browed sternness of the avant-gardists Henry Cow.

Wyatt's contributions are more political than Hegarty's – "Lisp Service" and "Out of the Blue" empathise with the civilian victims of bombing. The latter song's wintry string tonalities nail home its refrain, "You have planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart". But the band's arrangement of "Free Will and Testament" engages most, Rachel adding xylophone to the harmonium and violin as Becky delivers Wyatt's weary philosophical musings, heavy of heart but light of spirit.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month