Season’s greetings sithee

Kate Rusby at Christmas

Malvern Theatres

*****

I FIRST saw Kate Rusby a year ago when she came to Malvern near the end of her annual Christmas tour. I was very much looking forward to her return visit this December and was in no way disappointed.

Rusby’s warmth and down to earth friendliness set the atmosphere right from the start, as she comes onto the stage with her mug of Yorkshire tea and introduces the first song of the evening, Here We Come A-Wassailing from her 2008 album, Sweet Bells.

Obviously a huge fan of the Yuletide season and associated traditions, Rusby has two full albums of Christmas tunes, plus a live DVD. Her second song tonight, Joy to the World, is taken from her second Christmas album, the 2011 While Mortals Sleep. ‘Ooh, I like that one,’ beams Rusby as the applause dies down. ‘It sounds a bit Mexican.’

As she explained to us last year, and as she must explain countless times over these tours, 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 theykate ruby sang and drank together every weekend from Armistice Day to New Year.

Rusby tells us that at some point in her twenty two years 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, and later in the evening she shares with us the Cornish Wassailing Song.

Barnsley Born Kate Rusby

Accompanied on stage by various combinations of musicians, with instruments as diverse as melodeon, double bass and banjo, and in many parts accompanied by a five piece brass section, Rusby charms us through the evening, and seems genuinely thrilled to be back in Malvern, surrounded on stage by ‘the boys’ and doing what she has always loved to do.

It is a credit not only to the tunes’ inspired arrangements but also to her sound engineer brother Joe Rusby that despite the ten musicians on stage, Rusby’s voice is never overpowered, and despite its gentle timbre, it is always her voice which stands out and lifts the songs way above other renditions.

Later she introduces a non-Christmas song which she says she learnt from her mum and has now taught to her children. She tells us that her five year old daughter singing murder ballads in the school playground may not go down well.

The final song before the break is as impressive as any in the set, and I don’t ever remember hearing a version of Winter Wonderland before that sounded fresh and new and made me forget that I’d probably heard that same song a hundred times that year before advent even began.

After the interval, Rusby shares not only the title track from recently released album Ghost, but also her own ghost story. She seems to have a friendly spirit living in her current home, which she and other family members have seen, and which her mum has since discovered was well known to the former occupiers.

Utterly unperturbed, Rusby’s reaction to the haunting was to pen a tune for the ghostly entity and then name the album in its honour. Apparently the ghost has not been seen since.

At one point in the second half, Rusby leaves the stage so that ‘the boys’ can fully show off their skills. Their section is introduced with gusto and humour by Rusby’s guitarist husband Damien O’Kane.

It includes three tunes written by members of the band, with phrases of familiar Christmas tunes woven in. There are a few bars of a funky folky Santa Claus is Coming to Town, snatches of Jingle Bell Rock, a hint of Pachelbel’s Canon, and strange time signatures that my mind can’t quite follow. Back on stage, Rusby introduces Little Town of Bethlehem. ‘This is one of my favourites,’ she enthuses. ‘Actually, they all are.’

The stage is again beautifully yet simply set, with huge white snowflakes as a backdrop, apparently crocheted by a very nice woman in Sheffield. The lighting (by ‘James number two’) is pretty and effective, changing colour schemes for different numbers, through white and yellow, turquoise and lilac, and festive reds and greens, moving our focus from Rusby to the brass section for their star turns and then back to Rusby again.

There are more songs from this album, and more Christmas tunes, which Rusby urges us to join in with: the perky Kris Kringle and three completely different versions of While Shepherds Watched. I must say I love all three of these, from the upbeat Hail Chime On, to the slightly more sombre Cranbrook and the crowd pleasing final tune of the evening’s second half, Sweet Bells.

As Rusby tells us how a Kentish cobbler penned a tune for While Shepherds Watched, (he lived in Cranbrook, hence the song’s name), I can’t help feeling that if the Victorians hadn’t thrown all these lively variations out of church, there may well be a far greater and heartier attendance at advent and carol services up and down the land. The tune is now more familiar as that of On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at, albeit without the strains of Jingle Bells blended in.

Following massive applause after Sweet Bells, we are treated to an encore, a Yorkshire version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which again, is a tricky song to breathe new life into. They did it though, of course, and like the rest of the night’s performance, the song was gentle and uplifting, with a generous helping of festive cheer and joyful audience participation. A wonderful evening, and a fine way to start the Christmas break.

If you’re quick you may catch a festive Kate Rusby in Harrogate, Huddersfield or Nottingham, and her spring tour starts in April 2015.

Amy Rainbow

19-12-14 

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