Kate Rusby at Christmas

Malvern Theatres

*****

ONCE again, Kate Rusby was given a very warm welcome back to a packed house at Malvern for the penultimate evening of her fourteen night annual Christmas tour. As always, she seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing in Malvern, and full of festive cheer.

From the outset, Rusby urges the audience to sing along. She tells us that she’s fighting off a cold so needs our help with any bits that we know, or indeed any bits that we don’t know. The first song of the night is the cheery Bradfield, the first of many songs tonight from her new Christmas album The Frost is All Over.

After Bradfield, Rusby explains why she began this Christmas tour. Aware that many of us have heard her explanation before, she suggests that we chat amongst ourselves while she enlightens any first timers.

The focus of these gigs is the vast catalogue of carols local to her native South Yorkshire. In Victorian times, certain versions of carols were thrown out of the churches for being too rousing and hearty, so the folk of Yorkshire took these tunes to their local hostelries where they sang and drank together every weekend from Armistice Day to New Year.

This has continued to the present day, and these songs have been part of Rusby’s life since she was a child, when she would sit with the other youngsters in the corner of the pub, colouring in, eating crisps and drinking pop, whilst the songs gradually seeped into her consciousness. Her daughters, aged three and six, now go along too and the tradition continues.

Rusby tells us that at some point in her twenty three yeakate rusbyrs of touring, she realised that not every region has this tradition, so she decided to take some of these songs around the country in a dedicated Christmas tour.

She has since discovered that there is a similar Cornish tradition, so some of her songs now mix Yorkshire and Cornish versions of certain carols. Her second song tonight is in fact Cornish Wassailing and this is followed by Hark, Hark, What News from her 2008 Christmas album Sweet Bells.

Rusby introduces us to the musicians she shares the stage with, five of whom play an impressive variety of instruments including acoustic guitar, electric guitar, double bass and melodeon, and another five who make up the powerful brass section. They clearly have a great rapport, and Rusby tells us proudly that one of her ‘brass boys’ appeared in the film Brassed Off.

With last year’s familiar huge white snowflakes as a backdrop, apparently crocheted by a very nice woman in Sheffield, the stage is pretty yet simply set. Rusby looks wonderful in her silver sparkly dress, and jokes about being a human mirrorball. The changes in lighting throughout the evening make her dress appear to change colour with every song, from white and yellow, to turquoise and lilac, to purple and orange and to festive reds and greens.

With Rusby’s warmth and down to earth friendliness, it is easy to see why she has such a huge following and it’s a shame that given her popularity in Malvern, there is as yet no date here during her spring 2016 tour.  She talks to the audience as if we’re old friends, and as she sups from her Yorkshire Tea mug, she tells us of the band’s excitement on receiving their Christmas Radio Times, and chats about her dog Doris whose tenth birthday it is, and their walks around the village near Barnsley where they live.

During the first half of the evening we hear the perky Kris Kringle about the arrival of the Christmas tree (Rusby’s arrived yesterday), Cranbrook –  the first of tonight’s three versions of While Shepherds Watched, a Cornish version of I Saw Three Ships, and Rusby’s own composition Little Jack Frost. Before the break Rusby dedicates Little Town of Bethlehem to the men of Kellingley Colliery*, a gesture applauded by the audience.

A few songs into the second half and Rusby leaves us in the hands of ‘the boys’. They play three of their own tunes with snippets of old Christmas favourites amusingly woven in: Jingle Bell Rock, Deck the Halls, Ding Dong Merrily on High. There’s even a hint of Pachelbel’s Canon in there. Somehow, even during this section, with band members wearing Santa hats, the spirit of Christmas is stretched as far as possible without ever quite becoming tacky.

Rusby comes back on stage, and introduces To Drive the Cold Winter Away, a song about putting grudges aside and drinking and chatting with neighbours.

A ‘Rusbified and Yorkshirefied’ version of Winter Wonderland comes next, now on the Radio 2 playlist, Rusby beams. Sweet Bells is tonight’s third version of While Shepherds Watched and Rusby asks if we’d be interested in a tour she’s thinking of putting on just to showcase the thirty plus renditions of that particular song. I’m pretty sure she’s joking, but I’m equally sure she could make it work.

At the end of the second half, after massive cheering and applause, we are treated to an encore:  The Holly and The Ivy followed by a Yorkshire version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Rusby and ‘the boys’ receive a well deserved standing ovation for the uplifting and festive evening of entertainment they’ve given us.

Despite struggling at times with a troublesome throat which could probably have done with complete rest and a few cosy nights by the fire, Rusby was her bright and cheerful self, and I’ve no doubt she’ll be welcomed back by Malvern audiences for many years to come.

Amy Rainbow

20-12-15

*Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire was Britain’s last deep coal mine which closed on Friday, 18 December. In 1984 there were more than 190,000 miners – thirty years on the British coal miner is no more.  

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