Kate Rusby, Cadogan Hall, London
KATE Rusby loves Christmas. Of her 22 albums, seven have been Christmas ones. For the last 17 years, she has done a December tour of unremittingly joyful songs and carols, adapting a tradition from the pubs of her native South Yorkshire of singing carols from Armistice Day to Christmas.
Kate Rusby was ‘established in 1973’ as she puts it, being 50 years old. I first came across her in the mid-1990s when Andy Kershaw – in the halcyon days when Radio 1 accommodated folk music – played Hunting the Hare, sung with fellow Barnsley singer Kathryn Roberts, which was reason enough to buy their eponymous album, a sound investment in one of the best modern folk records.
While Rusby has performed with folk groups and greats (such as Richard Thompson) and other artists (even once reaching the Top 10 by playing second fiddle to Ronan Keating), she has always gone her own way. If she was a tempted to try to be a big star by making folk music mainstream, (like the much over-rated Mumford and Sons), it hasn’t shown. ‘I do my own make-up, cut my own hair, and make the music I want to’ Rusby declares. She leads her own band and has her own record label. Whilst staying true to her roots, she mixes electric guitars and a Moog synthesiser amongst traditional folk instruments, which has attracted the ire of the folk police sometimes.
Rusby’s gentle vocal style means she makes tragedy and sadness sound beautiful. The Recruited Collier is a great anti-war song, sad rather than angry. Who Will Sing Me Lullabies? (a boy lamenting the death of his father) and My Young Man (sung as her grandmother caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s), can bring the hardest man to tears.
But her Christmas concerts are two hours of constant good cheer and whimsy. Her usual five-piece band is doubled in size by a brass quintet. For your money, you get three versions of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night (Sweet Bells, Hail Chime on and her own variation, Rusby Shepherds). There are regional tunes, such as Bradfield, set in one of the Yorkshire villages famous for its boozy Yuletide singing, and Christmas is Merry, a Cornish carol.
For festive jokes, you have Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo (here at 4 minutes, 20 seconds) composed by Canadian songwriter David Myles. Arrest These Merry Gentlemen was written by the folk parody specialists The Kipper Family. Nothin’ for Christmas is a reworking of a hit novelty song from the 1950s. As you can see, Rusby loves finding and re-imagining old material as well as collecting vintage songbooks and putting tunes to the lyrics.
And with her own songs, she can do haunting seasonal melodies such as The Moon Shines Bright (with Alison Krauss on back vocals) or Glorious, imagining an angel appearing in a snow-laden tree in February, while longing for the spring.
Whilst you can find a lot of the songs above on her new Christmas album, Light Years, it’s much better to see Rusby live. For a start, in a pop music world where Auto-Tune makes you doubt anything is real, you realise that there are no studio tricks used to make her sound like a Yorkshire angel. I’ve included as many links to live performances as possible, but there’s nothing online from the current tour, even though the audience was not asked not to record them; we were all having too good a time to get our phones out to ‘capture the moment’. The stage set is suitably festive, complete with a nodding antler-illuminated reindeer.
We were also required to join in the singing, just a couple of choruses and one line from Deck the Halls, a compilation of audience performances to be put out as a complete song on her Facebook page after the tour completes (Cadogan Hall’s contribution is here). And if that isn’t corny enough, for an encore Rusby’s band dress up to a theme, this year’s being Christmas number ones; she appeared as Noddy Holder, as Slade’s Christmas hit came out in the year of her birth. Rusby didn’t attempt to sing it (we got Sweet Bells, the last version of While Shepherds Watched), although the band danced off the stage to Merry Christmas Everybody over the sound system. And if this all makes you cynically screw up your nose then I can only say ‘Bah! Humbug! It’s Christmas!’
By the time this article is in print, Kate’s Christmas tour will be over. But don’t worry, she’ll probably be doing it again next December. She’s having too much fun to stop.