Leeds Town Hall 12.12.13
Each Christmas, Barnsley folk angel Kate Rusby revives the South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire pub tradition of singing carols from Armistice Day to New Year’s Day.
There have been 12 years of concerts, two albums and now a DVD, and every December Kate returns bearing new gifts, making an annual visit to her carolling, wassailing show a Christmas must.
Leeds Town Hall last Thursday was the nearest to York this year, its mighty organ hidden by Kate’s backdrop of giant snowflakes, as she entered carrying her obligatory Yorkshire Yea mug, bought incongruously on the M40 and filled she later revealed with “throat coat” for her nightingale voice.
Delighted to be on home turf after the southern leg, she and her folk boys and her five “brass boys” from the Brighouse and Rastrick opened with Cranbrook: in a nutshell, While Shepherds Watched, to the music of Ilkla Moor Baht’At. It turns out to be a Kentish tune, as Kate, always a humorous hostess, gleefully teased her fellow Yorkshiremen.
Maybe she was softening them up for the next southern interloper, The Cornish Wassailing Song, a nod to Kate “having family down there”. Kate’s arrangement for this 2013 new addition could not have been more joyful, typical of these shows’ tunes that were banned from churches in Victorian times for being too jolly.
Apparently there are 30 variations on While Shepherds Watched, of which Kate knows 18, two of them, Sweet Bells and Hail Chime On, being the night’s sing-along favourites.
Kate’s own Christmas song, Home, was in keeping with her trademark melancholic compositions, and the non-festive bird song of The Lark was equally haunting, to counter the jollity that climaxed with another new addition, a Yorkshire version of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
Could there be anything merrier? Maybe waking to find a DVD of Kate Rusby Live At Christmas – recorded on Yorkshire soil at Harrogate Royal Hall – under the tree on Christmas Day morn.
In the Groove
Union Chapel, London – 8.12.13
The queue to get in stretched all the way down Compton Terrace for this sold out reminder that there was only 16 shopping days to the annual blow out. Normally, I can take or leave the ridiculously extended build up to the Christian-appropriated festival that is the Winter Solstice, but when the opportunity to see the wonderful Ms Rusby with her band and a brass quintet playing traditional South Yorkshire festive songs comes up, the Scrooge in me expires. Feeling Christmassy? You bet.
Having said that, I was in two minds pre-gig about what awaited me. Visions of uber-chintz and memories of school Christmas concerts would occasionally dampen my enthusiasm, aware as I was that this now annual series of gigs is geared towards songs related to December 25 rather than a trawl through Rusby’s superb back catalogue. I needn’t have worried. The Chapel was suitably attired in twinkly lights and a massive tree, and yes, there was plenty of seasonal chat and lyrics proclaiming the birth of the son of God, but the music never tipped over into sentimental slush and the banter was more saloon bar than front pew.
There was no support band, so shortly after 8 Kate and the band walked on to warm applause. A hearty welcome from the microphone and they kicked off with ‘Cranbrook’. Flanked on one side by her guitarist husband Damien O’Kane and relative new boy Duncan Lyell on Double Bass, and on the other by Julian Sutton (accordion) and Aaron Jones (guitar), the music was instantly beguiling and played with passion. In fact, passion was a word I returned to again and again during the performance, so clearly was it demonstrated by all involved, not least Rusby herself who sings and banters with a huge smile on her face. At the end of every song she stood back to applaud the musicians around her, and spent most musical breaks tapping away to the beat and watching her colleagues as if they’d only met an hour before the start. O’Kane wears his acoustic high up under his chin and strums with abandon, Sutton sways and bends with his accordion and Lyell does his best not to twirl the Bass like he’s in the speakeasy at Bugsy Malone’s. Together they are a mesmeric reminder to all of the power of live music, and when it’s played with such creativity it’s a joy to behold.
The first of two sets rushed by and included choice cuts from Rusby’s two seasonal albums, ‘Sweet Bells’ and ‘While Mortals Sleep’ I counted ‘Home’, ‘Poor Old Horse’, a manic ‘Kris Kringle’, ‘Hark Hark What News’, a Cornish wassailing song and the alternate version of ‘Holly and Ivy’. Songs were introduced with stories of their inception in the pubs of South Yorkshire, tales of Family Rusby and, of course, a mention or two of Doris the Dog. Some of the songs are still sung at Christmas in select bars north of Watford, a tradition sadly lacking in the anodyne, materialistic world of the South East. The atmosphere evoked was of cold nights and frosty hills, warm fires and pints of ale, bawdy banter and above all, friendship and community.
The second set opened with a beautiful ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ and then, for me, the outstanding track of the evening, one of three that diverted for ten minutes into studio tracks from her albums; ‘The Lark’. Written about the fields behind the Rusby home and studio, it was a flawless performance of a fabulous song. Those in the audience not mouthing the words held their breath until the final notes – it was very special. ‘Sweet Bells’, ‘The Holmfirth Anthem’, ‘Hail Hail Chime On’, ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ – the music continued to pour out over the faithful. At one point Kate left the stage to the boys, who put together a great instrumental session of banjo-driven Christmas songs and traditional folk, wrapped up by O’Kane’s drier than dry wit and comedy timing.
The icing on the cake was the brass quintet. The emotional sound of brass accompanying the songs lent a northern air to the melodies and a layer of warmth to the Chapel. It was great to see the stage fully utilised; often the gigs here are acoustic and the stage and pulpit loom over individual singer-songwriters, but here there was movement and sounds from all corners.
Kate Rusby rarely gets bad reviews and there was nothing here to criticise. She’s a natural storyteller, connects quickly and easily with her audience, and her voice is, twenty years into her career, as fine an instrument as you’re likely to hear. Back that with accomplished musicians who get as much of a kick introducing strangers to new versions of old friends as she does, and it’s a package that ensures she will be touring in December for many years to come. Her music will certainly grace my family’s festivities, and I look forward to her touring again in the Spring.
The Public Reviews
Leeds Town Hall 12.12.13
Tonight Kate Rusby was added to my list of Christmas favorites, alongside mince pies, the local pantomime and Christmas turkey. Rusby and her band performed over two hours of exceptional Christmas folk music taken from her “While Mortals Sleep” album, enough to excite even the biggest Christmas Scrooge.
A down to Earth Yorkshire lass with an amazing musical talent, Rusby takes to the stage to present Kate Rusby at Christmas. Not only does she treat us to her favourite Christmas tunes, she also gives us background information about the music and her influences. She is clearly passionate about her music and recalls the history of her musical influences throughout the night.
She explains that many of the songs we hear tonight come from the South Yorkshire Caroling tradition, something which after tonight, I am desperate to sample. It starts in pubs in South Yorkshire the weekend after Armistice Day and continues right through until the New Year. People come from miles around to fill the pubs and sing these songs that have formed part of South Yorkshire Tradition. Kate recalls being uninterested as a child, she was taken along by her parents and played in the corner while it all went on, but obviously some of it sunk in, and thank goodness it did.
Near the end of the second half we are introduced to the very talented band, including Kate’s husband Damien O’Kane on guitar, Duncan Lyle on Bass, Julian Sutton on accordian and Ed Boyd on bouzouki. Kate and the band are joined tonight by “the brass boys” as she calls them, a cornet, flugel, french horn, euphonium and tuba. The brass group add another dimension to the music and help support the Christmas feel, as only a brass group can.
“Joy to the World” is performed early in the first half and provides the audience with a good example of things to come, familiar Christmas music with a Rusby twist. Shepherds Arise follows soon after, a beautiful piece with a lovely string introduction, written in Dorset. Kate recalls learning the song when she was 15, in a church yard near Barnsley, when she was in a mystery play.
The brass section then leave the stage, allowing us to hear Kate and her band alone, performing ‘Home’, this is the first time that Rusby picks up her guitar, what a beautiful song and lovely playing from both Kate and the rest of the band.
Bringing the brass section back onto the stage, Rusby performs “The Wren”. She recalls the song being sung on Boxing Day. In Sheffield groups of young men used to gather in gangs early in the morning, they would go out and catch a wren, put it in a box and put ribbon around it. They would then take the wren to people’s houses show them the wren and ask for money.
The first half finishes on a high with the delightful “Cranbrook” or “While Shepherd’s Watched their Flocks” to the tune of “Ilkley Moor Bah T’at”. A nice addition to this was the “Jingle Bells” theme that was introduced by the band at various stages throughout the song.
The second half begins with “Kris Kringle”, followed by “The Holy and the Ivy”, of course set to a different tune. Before long, the band are left to do in Kate’s words, what they do when she isn’t making them play girly songs. The band are clearly extremely talented and their performance is a joy to watch. The pieces, written by Ed Boyd, the bands accordion player, are called; “Ricky Rhodes to Ruin” named after Richardson Road, the student part of Newcastle that Boyd has a few memories of. The second piece “Goodbye Mr Buns” refers to a sandwich shop in Newcastle. The pieces are catchy, upbeat and cleverly incorporate motifs from popular Christmas songs. The highlight for me was “Walking in the Air” on banjo followed by “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Kate returns to the stage again to perform another couple of songs before the final piece, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, a favorite Christmas song of Kate’s, that she recalls never being allowed to sing at school as she didn’t have the right clothes or hair to be cast as a part in the school Nativity to sing any of the songs. She even named her latest album after some of the lyrics. The vocal of the hymn has not been changed, unlike the other traditional songs she sings. But it proves that Kate can sing traditional songs beautifully and make it her own with her unique vocal style.
After rousing applause, and to the audiences delight, Kate and the band return for two more songs. “Underneath the Stars” and ends her magical performance with “Sweet Bells” another version of “While Shepherds Watched” to the tune of “Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells”. A perfect ending to a perfect performance.
Nottingham Playh0use – 15.2.13
Festivities came with a Yorkshire twang at Nottingham Playhouse on Sunday night as Kate Rusby returned for her annual Christmas show.
The stage was serene, with an array of fairy lights and snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, courtesy of the panto currently running at the theatre.
Rusby wandered on with a mug of tea in hand and was as chirpy and lovable as ever.
Quirky opener Cranbrook featured elements of On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, with a brass quintet from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band framing her enchanting and melancholic voice.
This was particularly powerful with a stirring rendition of favourite, Sweet Bells.
Together with her “boys”, Rusby’s rousing revival of well-loved hymns and folk classics had the sold-out auditorium on the edge of their seats, while her down-to-earth humour between songs really added to what was another perfect evening in her company.
She and husband Damien O’Kane on guitar spoke to the audience like old friends reunited, with childhood stories of Yorkshire her, while O’Kane joked about Nottingham traffic wardens and “annihilating Peppa Pig”.
Fun was always high on the agenda, with Silent Night, a Mexican twist on Hark The Herald Angels, horse noises on the trumpet and two more versions of While Shepherds…
A great start to the festive season and she’ll be back for more of the same next year.
The Boar (Student Magazine)
Warwick Arts Centre, 6.12.13
If you’ve never heard the music of Kate Rusby, you need to grab yourself a cup of mulled wine and a mince pie, and treat yourself to one of her Christmas albums. Sit back, listen in, and prepare to feel Christmassy!
Last year, Kate celebrated her 20th Anniversary of performing as a folk musician, and I have grown up listening to her music. Her winter concerts have started my Christmases for several years, and so it is fair to say that my expectations were high when I went to see her show at the Warwick Arts Centre this year.
As the crowd entered the theatre, the sight of the fairy lights and the snowflake-covered stage had everybody in a festive mood, and Kate got a huge round of applause as she walked onstage, grinning and warmly greeting the audience. Her informal, relaxed introductions to the songs set a calm, friendly atmosphere as she told us stories of her family, past concerts and the origins of her music. One particularly noteworthy anecdote revolved around an audience member who asked for the set list and musical keys for every song, before going on to play the trumpet all the way through that particular concert.
The song choices were varied, from the upbeat ‘Kris Kringle’ to the gentle ‘Poor Old Horse’ and everything in between. When Kate left the stage to allow Julian Sutton, Duncan Lyall, Aaron Jones and her husband Damien O’Kane to play “manly” tunes (in her own words), the group launched into a collection of tunes which fit together smoothly, with Christmas renditions weaved into it all. One of the few non-Christmas compositions which featured was ‘The Lark’, which is one of my all-time favourites, and before launching into loud applause, there was one of those rare moments where the audience pauses before clapping; still captivated by the song.
The sight of the fairy lights and the snowflake-covered stage had everybody in a festive mood, and Kate’s informal, relaxed introductions established a calm, friendly atmosphere.
In my village, we pile into the pub on Boxing Day to sing and play music, and Kate explained that her Christmas repertoire has its roots in a similar tradition. One would probably recognise the words to some of them, though not the tune, or perhaps the verses but not the chorus. Some you wouldn’t recognise at all, but you’d most certainly enjoy every one. My personal favourite is ‘Sweet Bells’, one of many versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched’, which adapts to a different tune and a fabulous chorus, during which the audience was encouraged (as with many of the songs) to join in. Such songs are built for big groups of people to sing along together, and I left the Arts Centre still humming along.
When the final song was announced, I didn’t want the concert to end, and the rest of the audience echoed my reaction. Kate said, in a stage whisper, that if we clapped loud enough they might be able to play one more. If the volume of applause can be used to judge a concert’s success, they definitely got at least twelve out of ten from the audience. We were rewarded with not one, but two bonus songs to sing along with, leaving us all with smiles on our faces, and the feeling that Christmas had truly begun!
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 17.12.13
There are Christmas traditions and then there are Christmas traditions. Most major town and cities will have some festive decorations, maybe an enormous tree adorning some central space and almost certainly a pantomime in the local theatre. Being Manchester, there’s the attraction of the traditional Christmas markets, now in their fifteenth year and extending across the city centre so much that the council have produced a mini-trail so as not to miss out on anything. It all comes to a head in Albert Square where the magnificent town hall entrance is adorned with a glittering frame atop which sits a huge Santa (looking suspiciously like Zippy from seventies children’s ‘Rainbow’ programme). The pantomime at the Opera House this year is Dick Whittington and the well known tale of his journey to London to find streets paved with gold and of course starring various celebrities, anonymous enough for the need of their fame added to the billboards, itself almost a Christmas tradition. For the want of something a bit different though, there’s been a new kid on the block for a few years now and one which is becoming a tradition in itself.
For her first time at the Bridgewater (apparently the staff confessed to not knowing whether to give her a hug of welcome or a slap for not coming earlier), it was the textbook setting for Kate Rusby at Christmas – even earning the acclaim of “our new favourite place” by the end of the evening. With her two ‘Christmas’ albums of traditional South Yorkshire seasonal songs and carols (‘Sweet Bells’ and ‘While Mortals Sleep’) having been in the shops for some time now, most of the songs would have been familiar and even if not, the light hearted in between song breaks meant the banter of the explanations and introductions made for most entertaining intervals between the more pressing business of playing the songs. Decked out in a suitably warm cardigan and scarf the diminutive figure of Kate Rusby dominated the vast expanse of the surroundings with her voice resonating as clear as crystal far into the lofty illuminated heights and the chance to include the five piece brass section alongside the regular band is always a joy.
It didn’t matter that we got more than the one version of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (after all there are over thirty versions) and several chances to wassail amongst the other seasonal songs or that there was a slight deviation from the Christmassy theme of the evening – ‘The Lark’ and ‘The Wishing Wife’ being shoehorned into the set alongside the very welcome appearance of bodhran playing local lad John Joe Kelly for the latter; staying on for a couple of songs including the now expected ‘boys set’ where Kate took a break and the band let rip along with the brass on a series of tunes from the Julian Sutton and Daman O’Kane songbook interspersed with some festive ditties. It was hearing John Joe play again that emphasised how much he’s been missed in the Rusby band, not having been part of the set up with them for some time.
Amongst the highlights were a heart string tugging ‘Home’, a most congenial take on the ‘Joy To The World’ with hints of the Mexican feel of the arrangement and the ‘Yorkshire’ version of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ (different verses, same chorus) which ended the evening, sending everyone out into the icy night full of seasonal cheer. Of course, anyone missing out can always wait until next year or indulge in some retail therapy and pick up the recently released DVD of the Christmas show filmed in Harrogate last year for repeated fixes over the coming months. Kate Rusby at Christmas – it’s the new black.
Liverpool Sound and Vision December 2013
Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 10.12.13
To see an artist enjoy themselves, to witness the little escaping of glee and cheer from their mouths after every song, is perhaps one of the great thrills in life. It certainly makes for an entertaining evening and enhances the overall pleasure of a listening to a set of songs delivered with beautiful precision and cheer.
Kate Rusby has become a sort of tradition when it comes to performing in Liverpool, the woman who alongside great heroes of the genre; encapsulates everything that is good to found in the art of Folk music. Like the publishing of the festive issue of the Radio Times, the advance notice of the details of the Christmas Day Doctor Who special or the sound of shops heaving with people scurrying around in search of a present that doesn’t exist, Kate Rusby heralds the start of the festive period.
For over 20 years the very proud Yorkshire singer has been taking her style of Folk music to the appreciative crowds at for the December of 2013, The Philharmonic Hall audience were treated to show that may have appeared simply charming on the surface but was underscored by months of planning and an appearance of the fabled brass section. This was just a little more than a chance for traditional songs of the period to make an entrance in amongst the quiet Yorkshire humour, it was the sense of the unmistakable talent to go one step further.
With two sets to fill, Kate Rusby and her band, the exceptional Damien O’ Kane, Aaron Jones, Julian Sutton and the poised confidence of a man in full command of his instrument Mr. Duncan Lyall, gave the audience a natural gift of music as an early Christmas present. Opening with the track Cranbrook, Kate Rusby and her male entourage took the audience through the delights of Folk, the imagery of music only performed, with one exception, in the very small area and their public houses of Yorkshire. The one exception being a version of Cornish Wassailing, which was so beautifully envisaged, that any child of that Celtic domain in the audience may have spent the next couple of songs with a tear or two in their eye.
With songs such as Home, The Holly and The Ivy, the brilliant Poor Horse, The Lark, the cautionary tale of the Wishing Wife, the exceptional Holmfirth Anthem and Sweet Bells all being performed with jubilant assuredness, there was never a reason for anybody in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to do anything but clap along wholeheartedly, smile from beginning to end and enjoy without measure the voice of a Yorkshire legend.
Ian D. Hall
Yorkshire Post 14 December 2012
Forget mince pies. Forget mistletoe. If you yearn to be plunged into a Christmassy mood, go to see Kate Rusby. Her show sparkles with magic and an achingly bittersweet sense of Christmasses past. She sings the carols of South Yorkshire, still chorused in pubs like the Royal Hotel in Dungworth on frosty evenings between Armistice Day and Christmas Eve, with her own unique melodic style.
Accompanied by a brass section, Rusby’s pure voice conjures up the spirit of those South Yorkshire folk – chucked out of church for singing too loud – belting out their words fit to raise the rafters of the pub roof. Harrogate’s Royal Hall remains intact, but there was a seriously well-earned standing ovation to the encore of Sweet Bells that might well have knocked off a few bits of plaster tonight.
London Royal Festival Hall – October 2012
A Kate Rusby concert – even a showpiece one at the Royal Festival Hall with visiting musical stars – is free of pretension and ego.
You do get banter, homely tales about roaming rams, family life and even chit-chat about bladder problems (Dick Gaughan had missed his cue and came on saying his bladder had a mind of its own – prompting Rusby to reply: “tell me about it, I’ve had two babies”). But underpinning all the humour and relaxed intimacy was the sheer quality of the music during a celebration of Rusby’s 20th anniversary as a professional musician.
Her new album, 20, has an interesting array of guests, including Paul Weller, Paul Brady and Richard Thompson, who have helped her re-create 20 of the 200 or so songs from her previous albums.
Some guests were part of the London concert. Gaughan, who celebrated his 20th anniversary back in 1990, was introduced by Rusby as “one of my all-time musical heroes” and the pair blended wonderfully on The Jolly Plough Boys.
Rising American star Sarah Jarosz joined in on Planets while Eddie Reader, Declan O’Rourke and Jim Causley all brought musical gifts to the party. There were 19 performers in total (including a string quartet) in what sometimes resembled a game of musical chairs, with Rusby’s husband Damien O’Kane helping things run smoothly.
There was also an instrumental interlude when some of the highly talented players – including banjo master Ron Block of Alison Krauss ANC Union Station renown – strutted their stuff. John Doyle, Jarosz, Julian Sutton and John Joe Kelly helped Block tear into some Irish traditional songs, throwing in a bit of The Muppets theme tune for good measure.
Of course, what a packed Southbank audience had come to enjoy was Rusby’s crystal clear, fluent voice. She did a fine version of Unquiet Grave (“folk police rules insist that there must be a ghost song,” she joked) and I Courted A Sailor was exemplary.
Sparkling versions of Awkward Annie and Bitter Boy showed that Rusby is a performer in full control of her powers. “Not bad for a short girl from Barnsley,” she said. Too right; this was a chuffin’ good concert. And who would begrudge Rusby such an enjoyable night?
London Royal Festival Hall – October 2012
Kate Rusby: Class, Maturity and Mumsy Natter
No sooner was my back turned than Kate Rusby, who once seemed destined to remain a teenager forever, reinvented herself as a mother-of-two with mumsy babble about little Daisy and Phoebe and the doting grandparents over from Coleraine.
And the growing up phase has spread to the music, too.
To mark 20 years of serious performance – there had been plenty of artistic endeavour stretching back into childhood as she traipsed around the folk festivals with her parents – Rusby assembled a troupe of phenomenal ability and charm, mixing youthful exuberance and solid experience, for a memorable concert at the Royal Festival Hall.
At one point I was astonished to count 13 musicians on stage, from a string quartet to banjo, guitar, flute, bodhran and piano, and found myself doing some basic mental arithmetic in wonderment at the economics of it all. But even that was merely the Rusby experience in diminished form; the number grew to 19 for the finale, with everyone back on stage to sing and play the rousing, anthemic encore, Wandering Soul.
This remarkable ensemble was brought together to present something akin to a live version of the new album, 20, on which a string of eminent guests have helped Rusby recreate some of the finer moments of her career.
It is illuminating to consider, first of all, the collaborators who could not make it. Paul Weller was nowhere to be seen last night; nor was Richard Thompson, Nic Jones, Bob Fox, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paul Brady or, among others, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. The presence of Dick Gaughan, Eddi Reader, Declan O’Rourke, Jim Causley and a beautiful and richly gifted young Texan, Sarah Jarosz, was enough to drive away any disappointment.
Indeed, my only criticism would be that I could have done with just a little more than the harmony and chorus singing that represented the function of the artists I have identified. A verse apiece maybe?
That is a trifling reservation. The setlist offered a generous dip into the triumphs of Rusby’s career. Jolly Ploughboys, Awkward Annie, Planets, The Bitter Boy and I Courted A Sailor were streaming through the consciousness on the journey home but there was not, in truth, a downward deviation from quality of the highest order.
As for the between-songs patter, that really is a matter of personal taste. Kate Rusby is Kate Rusby, the Yorkshire natterer; you either find it engaging, as I do, or can easily see why others consider it deeply irritating.
Now I realise that a typical Rusby tour will not shuttle 19 singers and players around the country for a month and a half. And I freely acknowledge that the tight little band that accompanied her when John McCusker was her chap had no shortage of superb musicianship.
But among all those people coming and going during the show, there was no trace of a passenger. And when Rusby left the stage to let them have their spot of instrumental glory, Damien O’Kane – ace guitarist, husband and dad of Daisy and Phoebe – launched them into a hypnotic, imaginatively arranged medley of Irish/Yorkshire tunes that strung together with compelling fluency and flair. I thought I’d spotted a flute-playing moonlighter from Dervish and was pleased to discover later that Liam Kelly was indeed the man who, like Ron Block on banjo (he’d blown a 16-year-old Kate away when she saw him at the Eden Valley bluegrass festival, accompanying Alison Krauss), was magnificent throughout.
Then it was back to the wistful Rusby voice that has captivated so many, not all of them natural folkies, since her unforgettable debut, an album of timeless class made with her friend and fellow Tykette, Kathryn Roberts, in 1995.
Earlier this year, I witnessed a sensational display of stadium rock at its finest by Coldplay in Nice. I’d love to see the Stones again, at O2, if only mortgages weren’t so hard to come by just now. But for intimacy and sheer pleasure, Rusby’s gig had the edge on the first and leaves me philosophical about missing the second.
And the next time someone chortles about the notion of a folk orchestra, and how it could never properly work, tell them to speak to me about the concert of great warmth, but also performing excellence, that I witnessed on the South Bank one mild night in late October 2012.
London Royal Festival Hall – October 2012
Kate Rusby may be out of step with the experimental folk scene, but she has retained an impressive following during her two-decade career. On stage at a packed Festival Hall, she announced with a giggle that her new album, 20, is already a bestseller. This was the live celebration of her “20 years of music making”, and, as on the album, she was joined by a celebrity cast helping to rework her back catalogue.
By the end of the evening there were 19 musicians on stage, with a string quartet and American banjo star Ron Block among the guests who had mostly added respectfully minimalist backing vocals.
Rusby has succeeded thanks to her exquisite, pure and breathy voice and skill in writing or choosing her material. As ever, she was at her best with intimate, often mournful songs with strong melodies, from the banjo-backed The Mocking Bird to the drifting Planets in which she was joined by the Texas star Sarah Jarosz to the lullaby Sho Heen, now a duet with Eddie Reader, or Bring me a Boat, with Declan O’Rourke quietly joining in. Mysteriously, she ignored her finest weepies, Wild Goose and Who Will Sing me Lullabies but did include the upbeat but twee Awkward Annie.
It was all classy and pleasant but predictably lacking in noise – at least until Rusby left the stage. Suddenly, there was a furious workout featuring duelling banjos from Block and Damien O’Kane and inspired mandolin from Jarosz. This was a seriously impressive backing band.
London Royal Festival Hall – October 2012
Folk music is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, while Kate Rusby is busy celebrating 20 years in the business. Accompanied by her band and a selection of the musical pals who guest on her new album 20, including Eddie Reader and Declan O’Rourke, Kate put on an accomplished display of English folk both traditional and self-penned to a crowd of appreciative fans.
In a different venue this may have been a very different gig. While the RFH did an excellent job of staging the show with some well-designed lighting, folk music by nature is intimate – troubadours sharing their tales - and much of the charm and affection of Kate’s music was lost in the vast expanse of the hall. Had it been a smaller space perhaps the atmosphere would have been less flat, and more of the warmth of the pieces would have been captured. Sitting straight and still in a traditional concert hall to this music somehow felt wrong, and consequently it was less engaging.
The music itself was, of course, top notch in terms of quality. This is warm, comforting storytelling; Kate has an elegant voice and she knows how to use it to beautiful effect. Highlights included Unquiet Grave (the “obligatory ghost song” as Kate put it, “included to please the Folk Police”), shiver-inducing, mournful, and with a lovely ethereal arrangement complete with string quartet. The catchy I Courted A Sailor was a great example of ensemble music-making; 13 people on stage with a range of instruments from banjo to strings, well-balanced and completely together, while Bring Me A Boat was a lovely little song – serene and calm, with a beautiful flute part – but again its impact was somewhat cast adrift in the large hall.
Kate is famous for her Barnsley roots and she is pleasant, charming and very open with the audience, taking great pains to introduce everyone on stage and enthusing about their respective CDs and talents. It was a family affair, with brother Joe on sound (up the volume on the strings a bit, please), husband Damien O’Kane on guitar, and plenty of homely anecdotes to boot. This is all very endearing, but the between-song chatter became a little wearing, particularly as the concert contained an interval and was quite lengthy. The songs in this genre especially do not need to be narrated in advance – let the music do the work as it is designed for. One set with a good encore and slightly less chat would have increased the impact of the songs, which were indisputably of high quality.
Thankfully an instrumental interlude of lively Irish folk, featuring Ron Block (Alison Krauss & Union Station) on banjo and some brilliant mandolin soloing from the supremely talented Sarah Jarosz, injected some much-needed life into the show and was the only occasion where the musicians really let rip – adding a little bit of fun by cleverly seguing into the Muppets theme for good measure.
A professional concert by the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’, fans wouldn’t have been disappointed in the least, but a smaller, more intimate venue would have done the music more justice.
October 2012 – Sheffield City Hall
IT’S hard to believe that Kate Rusby has been on the professional folk scene for 20 years – although her feel for stories handed down through generations was nurtured from the womb. For her 20th anniversary tour and to promote the new double album 20, she’s appearing with a line-up that can only described as megastellar.
Favourite songs from throughout her career featured, given a new twist with tight harmonies, the odd playful interrupted rhythm and consummate string work by guitar, banjo, mandolin and double bass as well as a string quartet in places. Rusby herself was in fine voice, both the gentle and contemplative and more urgent tunes flowed out of her with equal ease and expertise.
Rusby’s two tiny daughters Daisy and Phoebe made a brief appearance with grandma and auntie, underlining the fact that the Kate Rusby Show is very much a family affair. In the second half the band, led by Damien O’Kane (Rusby’s multi-talented husband) on guitar, gave full vent to a show-stopping quartet of numbers with the superlative banjo of Ron Block at their core.
Other outstanding moments included Rubsy’s close harmonies on Planets with Texan singer and mandolin player Sarah Jarosz and the appearance of folk legend Dick Gaughan.
In all a night not easily forgotten.
December 2011 – Nottingham Playhouse
After cancelling two shows last week due to losing her voice the sell-out crowd at the Playhouse were relieved to find Kate Rusby in fine voice to deliver her annual helping of Christmas cheer.
Drawing from a repertoire of traditional South Yorkshire carols and numbers from her new CD, While Mortals Sleep, Kate gave plenty of opportunity for us to join in.
There was something for everyone – from a heart-rendering version of Little Town of Bethlehem to While Shepherds Watched, sung to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Bah T’at.
With minimal but sensitive accompaniment from expert accordion player Julian Sutton and guitar and banjo from husband, Damien O’Kane, her arrangements conjured up traditional country Christmas times of yesteryear with perfect harmonies and a touch of melancholy.
The much-loved brass quintet added to the festive mood and homely atmosphere, particularly on numbers like the ancient Holmfirth Anthem and Sheperds Arise, which stirred the audience to a united harmony.
A great evening with Rusby reminding us yet again that music is indeed at the heart of Christmas happiness.
The Arts Desk (on line review)
December 2011 – London Barbican
Kate Rusby’s Christmas show was a brilliant way to get that festive feeling. Standing on a stage lit by three huge glittering stars and a collection of colourful glowing baubles, she and her band (“the boys”) worked their way through a surprising and heartwarming selection of traditional carols, set to unusual tunes and with creative flare.
The Barnsley Nightingale’s version of “While Shepherd’s Watch their Flock by Night” was set to the tune of “On Ilkley Moor Bar T’at”. It was extraordinary. She sang “And this shall be the sign” instead of the bar t’at bit. At every introduction of a new song she said, quite genuinely, “Oh, I absolutely love this one,” before telling us the backstory of how the ditty is sung in pubs in her native Yorkshire and encouraging us to join in on the chorus.
The rather sedate, seated audience at the Barbican took a while to warm up to Rusby’s beseeches to sing along, only really getting into it towards the end. There were plenty of “Ho ho hos” and “Jingle, jingles” on “Kris Kringle”, but Rusby was left to bring all the Christmas cheer herself as the audience remained silent. She didn’t falter though and, as she chatted and joked throughout, seemed at home on stage and was having a brilliant time. I last saw Rusby at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July, and (although she was good there, too) by comparison last night she seemed to be having a ball.
There was an entire brass section to support Rusby and her usual band of “boys” (which includes her husband Damien O’Kane). The cornet, trumpets and trombones provided rich and clear refrains on a folk version of “The Holly and the Ivy”. Surrounded by nine blokes Rusby shone brightly, her beautiful voice and relaxed confidence breaking through the layered sound emanating from around her.
It was a good moment when introducing “Seven Joys of Good Mary” for Rusby to confess to the audience that the slight bump visible beneath her little black dress was there because “me and him [O’Kane] are having another baby. I thought I’d tell you in case you thought it was too many mince pies”. She launched into a graceful new song, “Homes”, and gave an interesting rendition of a Dorset carol called “Shepherd’s Arise”.
During the second half Rusby and the brass section disappeared for 10 minutes leaving the stage to O’Kane and the other three boys who performed an excellent and gruelling medley of fast-paced folk tunes. Continuing the evening’s light and silly theme, the players hid a few “cultural Christmas references” in their short set, so occasionally a few bars of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” or Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air” would interrupt. “I knew you’d love it!” exclaimed Rusby running back on stage amid shrieks and applause.
Finishing with a familiar version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, which made the hairs on my neck stand up, Rusby and the boys left to wild applause. But she topped the evening off by returning to do “Underneath the Stars” as an encore. Having not felt Christmassy yet this year, I left humming carols and wondering where I can buy the CD.
December 2011 – Elsecar Heritage Centre, Barnsley (Preview Concert)
I’ve long been a fan of Kate Rusby’s first collection of Christmas songs, called Sweet Bells.
The traditional South Yorkshire carols and tunes, thrown out of the church in Victorian times for being too jolly and kept alive in the area’s annual pub sings, are a fine backdrop to the festive season.
So it was with much delight that I first listened to While Mortals Sleep, a follow-up album of the same ilk that brings to life some fine folk versions of great Christmas tunes such as Joy to the World, Little Town of Bethlehem and Shepherds Arise.
There’s also less well-known tracks such as The Wren, Diadem, Home, Kris Kringle and Cranbrook, the latter an addictive anthem that matches shepherds watching their flocks with the music to Ilkley Moor Bar T’at.
This tune was originally called Cranbrook, Kate told festive fans on the opening night of her now obligatory Christmas tour at a disused factory on the outskirts of her native Barnsley.
Her live performance matches the CDs for sheer beautiful vocal quality and a now tight-knit band brings everything together brilliantly.
With stars atop the stage and fairy lights around the speakers, seeing Rusby perform these local carols in their original setting before embarking on a tour calling at London and Newcastle, among other places, was a real joy, cold though the huge industrial building was.
It was so cold, in fact, that Rusby – now pregnant and expecting child number two in May – abandoned her ‘going out cardigan’ for something heavier and warmer.
Putting on her Christmas CDs and seeing her live is now a part of a yuletide tradition for me, marking the start of festivities as much as viewing the Coca Cola lorry for the first time or biting into a mince pie once again.
But there’s a serious musical trend going on here, too, and not just the popular revival of some carols and tunes that have remained hidden away in pubs for decades.
Rusby, along with Michael Buble and a few others, are finally bringing out new material worth listening to at Christmas and reducing the dependency on the odd ‘in your face’ classics from the 1970s and 80s.
Buzz Magazine, South Wales Cultural Monthly
December 2010 – St David’s Hall, Cardiff
As I cough and croak my way into Cardiff, convinced that I’m on the brink of bubonic plague, the capital’s wintry air seems like a significantly less than adequate replacement for my bed. But as I shuffle into the hall, my ailments are swiftly forgotten. Greeted by a spectacularly Christmassy stage setting with stars on high and Christmas trees galore, my splutters are immediately swapped for smiles. Within seconds Kate tiptoes into the spotlight, all beaming cheeriness and charming beauty, and sweeps into an exquisitely heart-melting rendition of ‘Joy to the World’. Accompanied by a new lineup, Rusby’s velvet voice naturally breathes with the magic of Yuletide and seems like the best medicine of all.
The show comes as an early Christmas treat, with Kate and co. offering a sprinkling of newer tracks from her latest (and first entirely self-penned) album ‘Make the Light’ in amongst plenty of chrimbo glee from her ‘Sweet Bells’ longplayer. We’re also gifted further goodies in the shape of guitarist and husband O’Kane’s stunningly hypnotic ‘Summer Hill’ and two of melodeon man Julian Sutton’s rousing instrumental contributions.
Set highlight, the spirited optimism of ‘Walk the Road’ sees the brass quintet of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band add a stirring grace to proceedings as they continue to do all night, while ‘Sweet Bells’ is just lovely – Rusby’s voice soft as fresh snow, pretty as a sparkling Christmas star. The incandescent purity of her voice shines through yet again on the achingly alluring ‘Only Hope’ and I find myself crossing my fingers in the vain hope that the show won’t ever end.
Her between-song banter is as endearingly charming as ever, with her delightfully warm chit-chat making it feel more like we’re sat in the living room with our new best friend than in a concert hall with the defining voice of English folk music. Her gracious smiles are as infectious as the melodies she conjures and it’s impossible not to leave St David’s Hall utterly smitten with such an exceptionally talented and down-to-earth performer.
My only complaint is that the show did end, despite my best finger-crossing efforts, but I’m left wishing that the soundtrack to every winter evening could be this ruddy beautiful.
The Lancaster and Morecambe Reporter
October 2010 – The Lowry, Salford
A friend of mine once called me a nerd for liking folk music. And while I haven’t quite got the tweed cap and corduroy trousers just yet, I do own the complete discography of Kate Rusby.
It was Bob Harris and his Radio 2 show that first brought the folk singer to my attention. After hearing the Barnsley-born singer’s single The Unquiet Grave, I promptly went out and bought her Sleepless album. Some 10 years later and five trips to see Kate live and I’m still hooked.
Whether you’re a folk fan or not, I doubt anyone would say they don’t appreciate a great singing voice. ’The voice of an angel and the accent of a Barnsley tyke’. Kate’s real charm is in the banter between songs.
And turning up to her Hallowe’en show at Salford’s The Lowry on Sunday, October 31, Kate’s endearing, childlike charm was evident before she’s even arrived onstage.
A stage scattered with fake cobwebs and littered with eerie pumpkins provided the backdrop. The kind Kate even thought to bring the audience a cauldron full of chocolates, which she encouraged those down the front to share out.
Performing a set which included songs from the albums Awkward Annie, Little Lights, Ten and The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly, Kate and her four-piece band also treated the crowd to tracks from upcoming album Make the Light, due for release later this month.
And if the mini taster we received at the gig was anything to go by, Make the Light looks set to be one of Kate’s best albums yet.
Crystal clear vocals combined with beautiful songs and faultless musicianship made the Manchester show a real treat.
If you missed Kate in Salford , you can see her live in Preston on December 4.
For more details, head to www.katerusby.com
October 2010 – Colston Hall, Bristol
Some things have changed a lot in the folk world of Kate Rusby since we last saw her play the Colston Hall. Every member of her band for starters. Replacing guitarist Ian Carr is Kate’s, now husband, Damien O’Kane on acoustic, electric, tenor guitar and banjo. Prolific Scottish six-string and bouzouki player Malcolm Stitt also joins the fold.
There are setlist changes abound too for one of British folk’s greatest artists – six songs are debuted tonight from forthcoming album Make The Light (Kate tells us it’s due 20 November). The album is the first exclusively to Kate’s own compositions and on the evidence tonight, it’s going to be very good indeed.
Other trademarks don’t change – her between song banter is as humble and hilarious as ever. The heartwarming stories of her baby daughter Daisy and dog Doris are often completely at odds with the serious and somber tone of some of her songs. But it makes for the perfect intimate and inclusive atmosphere for this carefully crafted acoustic music. After opening with the upbeat title track from her last album, Awkward Annie the sound mix is immediately crystal clear. And the stage set is as unpretentious as ever; simple fairy lights the only excess.
The contrast between optimistic tales and mournful ballads has always been Rusby’s calling card and sure enough the next song is a heartbreaking one, her take on traditional song The White Cockade (as she explains it’s one of the first folk songs she learned from her parents). The minimalist picking of Stitt’s bouzouki entwining with O’Kane’s acoustic guitar is the perfect accompaniment for Rusby’s stunning vocal. The sound of her voice so fully immersed in the tragic tale time could almost halt and you wouldn’t notice.
Of the new songs aired, the first Only Hope is one of the most immediate. Its blend of melancholy and the chiming lead line from O’Kane on a Gretsch (an electric guitar is a rare sight indeed at a Kate Rusby gig) make it instantly memorable. Another, Let Them Fly, is a departure in that it’s political – although Rusby won’t say who its incisive lyrics are aimed at.
Northern Irish musician O’Kane is a solo artist in his own right and Kate accompanies him on his song Summer Hill (the title track from his album released earlier this year). It’s interesting to hear his use of delay here. It’s something he revisits on Green Fields, another strong new Rusby song aired later in the set that features some stunning falsetto from her in the chorus.
Elsewhere Mockingbird, another new song that features only double bass and O’Kane on tenor as accompaniment, recalls another past standout bird-monikered Rusby song, The Lark, in its stark emotion. Meanwhile O’Kane plays banjo, for which he is known for in folk supergroup Flook, on the Bluegrass-flavoured High On A Hill and a thrilling duet with accordion player Julian Sutton on one of the latter’s own compositions.
With her 20 year anniversary as a professional musician approaching next year, it’s clear from tonight that Kate Rusby has never been happier in her work. But all six new songs tonight suggest the best is yet to come for one of British folk’s all-time greats.
York Evening Press
September 2010 – Grand Opera House York
MUCH has changed in Kate Rusby’s Yorkshire world since she last played York in November 2008, although sad songs and bubbly chat and a mug of tea in her hand remain staples of her homely live show.
Saying goodbye to her usual folk suspects, Ian Carr, Andy Seward and Andy Cutting (John McCusker already had left the line-up by that 2008 show), Kate had a new husband by her side: Coleraine guitarist, banjo player and traditional singer Damien O’Kane.
He led her 2010 line-up of Fort William bouzouki player Malcolm Stitt, long and lean Newcastle accordionist Julian Sutton and double-bassist Kevin McGuire, the strong and silent type at the back.
Although shorn of McCusker’s violin and whistles, the combination was nevertheless not that far removed from the old Rusby folk sound, the accordion still so vital.
What was fresh, aside from Kate and Damien’s baby daughter, Daisy, and the new array of fairy lighting and tea lights on stage, was the raft of songs from her November album, Make The Light: the first to feature solely her own compositions.
Breaking new ground, Let Them Fly was inspired by irritation with an unnamed politician; Green Fields was as evocative as its title; and the up-tempo The Wishing Wife was darkly humorous.
Save for the opening Awkward Annie, Kate eschewed past peaks of her writing (Underneath The Stars, Who Will Sing Me Lullabies, No Names, Planets) to revisit the old folk of The Good Man, The Old Man and I Courted A Sailor, keeping the flame of tradition alive when her own beautiful deeds have better enriched it.
September 2010 – Newark Palace Theatre
“Bloomin’ heck, they’re coming out fast tonight!” Singer-songwriter Kate Rusby had a sheaf of new works for her packed Newark audience, very different from the tragic folk ballads and slow lover’s laments of yore.
When she released her 2007 album Awkward Annie, she confessed that it had been the hardest to make so far. Her personal life was at a very low ebb.
Since then, though, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. Rusby found a new partner at home and on stage, with whom she had a child last year, and to whom she got hitched in Barnsley this summer.
Childbearing caused the hiatus in her song and record output, but it sparked off a fresh burst of creativity. She delivered pacy new songs (The Wishing Wife), a heartfelt anthemic piece (Walk The Road), lyrics with a positive ring (Only Hope and I Wish, the latter penned for daughter Daisy).
Also novel, Rusby remarked, was the Palace Theatre’s fresh green decor, which reminded her of mint ice-cream.
With Malcolm Stitt (guitar and bouzouki), Julian Sutton (melodeon) and Kevin McGuire (double bass) in support, guitarist and banjo player Damien O’Kane gives the band a strong Irish feel. He displayed a fine voice in a song evoking his native Coleraine, Rusby adding exquisite harmonies.
She lent a wifely hand when a string broke, passing him one of her own guitars and taking his away for repair. Meanwhile, Sutton’s melodeon led a fleet-footed interlude.
Mixed in with the new material were older favourites like The White Cockade, learnt from Rusby’s parents at a tender age. Daughter of Megan (“so lovely and blooming”) made a balladic offering to the Welsh in the house.
I Courted A Sailor provided the rousing conclusion, Wandering Soul a delicate farewell.