COVID crocked Barnsley skylark Kate Rusby’s 2020 carol concerts, replaced by the digital makeshift of a Happy Holly Day livestream from CAST, Doncaster.
Roll on a year, and relentless Scrooge Covid scuppered the first six shows of Kate Rusby At Christmas 2021, Kate herself having caught the lurgy.
Recovered, but still fighting off the last residue of a cough between songs, she was delighted to open the revised tour dates on Yorkshire soil at Harrogate Royal Hall, that icing cake of a beautiful concert hall, on Sunday night.
Christmas decorations interwoven with fairy lights framed the stage apron; Ruby, the decorated nodding reindeer, was in situ to Kate’s right, and everything else familiar to these shows in their 14th year was in place too: Kate’s sparkling party dress; her regular folk band and traditional partners in South Yorkshire Christmas sound, the Brass Boys, their instruments shining oh so brightly, Brass Boy Chris on crutches after a fall.
Anything missing? Ah yes, the handmade garland normally wrapped around Kate’s microphone stand, ever since being thrown on stage by an enthusiastic woman in Sheffield one Christmas , but suddenly gone AWOL when Kate went looking for the Christmas stage decorations.
New for this year were the lighting projections, mirroring the snowy star design on the “unique” tour T-shirt: “unique”, said Kate, because the dates included the “ghost” shows never to be played (although the Sage show in Gateshead has been moved to from December 9 to 17). Depending on a song’s mood, the backdrop switched from warming red to moody blue to frosty white.
Where better to start than at the very beginning: the chipper opening to the first of five Rusby Christmas albums, Here We Come A-Wassailing, from 2008’s Sweet Bells: the perfect herald to Christmas celebrations, no matter the shroud of uncertainty now descending.
Kate would go on, as always, to explain the roots of these concerts, first prompted by the 200-year tradition of lusty Sunday lunchtime singing in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire pubs of carols banned in Victorian churches for being too jolly, 30 versions of While Shepherds Watched among them!
Through 14 years – or is it 15, as Kate and husband-musician Damien O’Kane debated? – her Christmas repertoire has expanded and broadened. Now it takes in her own winter compositions; carols and wassailing songs from Cornwall, where her cousin lives; festive favourites from the American songbook (Winter Wonderland) and curios (David Myles’s Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo and John Fox’s Hippo For Christmas), while Josh Clark’s percussion has added another dimension.
The diversity is well represented over the two sets, peppered with a costume change to full-length hippo for a Brass Boy; three variations on While Shepherds Watched; joyful carols aplenty; a set of “manly” reels and Christmas tunes with dazzling interplay between brass and folk players, led by O’Kane, and a smattering of Kate’s own “girly” songs.
Duncan Lyall has introduced the Moog – surely the sound of the moon if it made a sound – to Kate’s winter landscapes, wherein the traditional Paradise and Kate’s The Holly King resounded with mystery and magic as the hall seemed to ice over.
Let The Bells Ring, written by Kate after seeing in the New Year and the rise of dawn on a Cornish beach, had our thoughts turning to wishes for a better year ahead, her midnight voice so clear and solitary, mournful yet hopeful too.
Rusby At Christmas has built up its own traditions, topped off by the fancy-dress encore, initially inspired by Nativity plays. In 2019, the theme was the Christmas feast, Kate dressing as a Christmas pudding, the Brass Boys as Brussels sprouts. This time, for Sweet Bells and Yorkshire Merry Christmas, it was films watched every Christmas.
York Barbican awaits on Monday, so let’s keep those films and costumes hush-hush for now. Suffice to say, your reviewer is still smiling at the sight of Kate.
Kate Rusby At Christmas, York Barbican, December 20, 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Review by Charles Hutchinson