Kate Rusby heralds Christmas tour with York Barbican opening night and Light Years album as she turns festive 50

Kate Rusby: Playing Yorkshire concerts in York, Bradford and Sheffield on her Christmas tour. Picture: David Angel

BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby marks turning 50 on Monday with the release of her seventh Christmas album, Light Years, and an accompanying tour that opens at York Barbican on Thursday (7/12/2023).

In the company of her regular band, coupled with the added warmth of “the Brass Boys”, Kate combines carols still sung in South Yorkshire pubs with her winter songs and favourite Christmas chestnuts, whether It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year or a seamless mash-up of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree and Sleigh Ride. As ever, look out for the festive fancy dress finale.

Here Kate shines a light on Light Years, Yorkshire pub carols and Christmas festivities in discussion with CharlesHutchPress.

How did you approach making your seventh Christmas album, Kate? Were you looking to add new elements to your successful format?

“Light Years has the sound and feel of my last two ‘normal’ albums, Hand Me Down (August 2020)  and 30: Happy Returns (May 2022). I’m loving experimenting with sounds, Moogs, layered banjos, low subs, effects etc, all things we have to hand these days as I’m blessed to have the most brilliant musicians around me.

“Produced by superbly talented Damien O’Kane [Kate’s husband, by the way], whose stunning playing also grounds each track musically. These are sounds I have wanted to achieve for so many years of my recording/touring career and finally at the age of 50 we’ve achieved that sound on a Christmas album. Happy birthday to me!”

How come you have made so many Christmas albums, whereas Michael Buble keeps re-releasing one?! 

“Ha! I have the whole treasure chest of South Yorkshire carols to delve into! There are so, so many to go at, with over 30 different versions of just While Shepherds Watched sung in pubs every winter. Don’t tell Michael though!”

What were the circumstances behind writing Glorious, perhaps the most glorious title you could give a winter song?

 “Glorious was written by me one cold February evening, after standing in my garden, snow-laden trees and warm glow of the evening sun illuminating only half of the world. While it was so still and beautiful, I was longing for spring and for the daylight to return.

“As I stood there an image of a lost and broken angel appeared in my head, just sitting there in one of the trees, wandering and waiting to heal and return from where he came. And so the song was born. I can’t wait to do this song live!”

Happy 50th birthday on Monday, Kate. You must have been delighted at having the early birthday present of Alison Krauss and Ron Block working with you on The Moon Shines Bright. How did that recording come to fruition and why that choice of song?

“Thank you! I’ve been celebrating all week and intend to for the rest of the month! The Moon Shines Bright features Alison’s gorgeous singing and Ron’s singing and string banjo; they’re both musical heroes of mine.

“I first sung it back when I was 15 as part of a theatre production of The Mystery Plays, and the song stayed with me all these years. The year after, when I was 16, my dad was a sound engineer working at Edale Bluegrass Festival.

“I was sat beside him when on to the stage came Alison Krauss and Union Station, including Ron Block, who still plays banjo, guitar and sings with Alison after all these years. I was completely blown away and my love of bluegrass began there.

“I’ve been a fan of Alison and Ron for all these years and Ron has become a dear friend and recorded on my last few albums, so it feels like we’ve completed a circle somehow, and needless to say, it’s such an honour and a dream come true to have Alison sing with us. Again, happy birthday me!”

What drew you to A Spaceman Came Travelling: Chris de Burgh’s 1975 gem of a Christmas song that failed to chart in the UK but topped the Irish chart?

“I went on a little road trip with my older cousin (now a brilliant artist called Marie Mills, check her out!). She had Chris de Burgh cassettes in her car, so we listened to his music all weekend. It was the first time I’d heard his music and really loved it.

“Since the first of my Christmas albums I’ve wanted to do a version of Spaceman but it never quite fitted in with the rest of the album…until now.”

The snowy cover for Kate Rusby’s seventh Christmas album, Light Years. Artwork design by Martin Roswell at Simply Marvellous

Where did you discover the Chris Sugden (aka Sid Kipper) parody Arrest These Merry Gentlemen?

“Chris was one half of a folk comedy duo called The Kipper Family, a parody in itself of the famous folk family The Copper Family. They were absolutely hilarious! They wrote parodies of famous folk songs so everyone in the audience at festivals got the jokes.

“Chris later went on to do solo gigs as Sid Kipper, again, totally hilarious. I was brought up at folk festivals as my dad was a sound engineer so we went to many every summer. I’d heard Arrest These Merry Gentlemen way back then, and also The Ivy And The Holly, which we covered on an earlier album. I love them both and love to be introducing his songs to people who’ve never heard them. He’s a proper genius!” 

Always room for another version of While Shepherds Watched! What’s the story behind Rusby Shepherds on the new album?

“There has been at least one version on each one of my Christmas albums. I was deciding which version to put on this one when I accidentally wrote a new tune for it! So I called it Rusby Shepherds, so there’s one more now!” 

Aside from songs and Carols from Light Years, what will be new in the latest round of Kate Rusby At Christmas concerts?

“We have a new set design this year, I can’t wait to see it all on stage for the first gig in York. I know what it is and have seen elements of it, so I’m really excited to see it in situ. It’s going to be so beautiful.” 

What will be the band line-up for this winter’s tour?

“My lovely, brilliant gang of band, brass and crew! Damien O’Kane, guitars, electric guitars, tenor guitar, electric tenor, banjo and vocals. Duncan Lyall, double bass and Moog synthesiser. Nick Cooke, accordions and electric guitar. Josh Clark, percussion and drums.

“Sam Kelly is with us for Christmas for the first time; he’s been in my regular band for a couple of years and we’re pleased to have him along for the Christmas tour this year on bouzouki, guitar, electric guitar and vocals. And of course my lovely brass lads, Gary Wyatt, Mike Levis, Chris Howlings, Robin Taylor and Lee Clayson.

“The most amazing crew is behind us all making sure it all sounds and looks beautiful and that it all happens as smoothly as it can. Alison Povey, Pete Sharman, Zak Nicholson, Harry Le Masurier, David Bower and Asa Duke. I’m blessed to have each and every one of these marvellous humans with me on tour.” 

Roast turkey or goose for the Rusby-O’Kane household on Christmas Day?

“Ooh, now then, we’ve had a goose for so many years but last year we went back to having a turkey from a local farmer, as was the goose, but we loved it so much we’re going turkey again this year. With all the trimmings, including Yorkshire puds gravies, bread sauce etc.”

Which album would you recommend giving as a Christmas present this year?

“Damien O’Kane and Ron Block’s latest album, Banjophonics. I may be a little biased but it’s sunshine in a bottle music. Just what we need in these murky winter days!”

Kate Rusby: Light Years Christmas Tour, York Barbican, Thursday (7/12/2023), 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk. Also playing St George’s Hall, Bradford, December 8 (01274 432000 or bradford-theatres.co.uk) and Sheffield City Hall, December 14 (0114 256 5593 or sheffieldcityhall.co.uk) . Light Years is out now on Pure Records.

Track listing for Light Years: 1. Spean; 2. Glorious; 3. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; 4. Rusby Shepherds; 5. The Moon Shines Bright (feat. Alison Krauss & Ron Block); 6. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/Sleigh Ride; 7. Nowell, Nowell; 8. Arrest These Merry Gentlemen; 9. A Spaceman Came Travelling; 10. Nothin’ For Christmas; 11. Joseph.

Holly Head: Kate Rusby in Christmas headgear on the cover of her 2019 album of South Yorkshire pub carols and winter songs

South Yorkshire pub carols: the back story

FOR Kate Rusby, abiding memories of childhood at Christmas are full of carols in the tap room of many a Yorkshire pub, surrounded by family, community, warmth, happiness, colouring books and crisps.

The tradition of singing carols in South Yorkshire pubs grew out of the original versions being banished from churches by the pious Victorians, their “happier tunes deemed too raucous for choirs”. Instead, they moved to pubs to accompany the beer, the banter and the bunting.

Carols are sung from the weekend after Armistice Day to New Year’s Day. Colloquially known as the Sheffield Carols, they will be sung in the Steel City this winter at The Sportsman, Redmires Road, on Mondays; the Crown and Glove, Stannington, Tuesdays; The Stocks, Ecclesfield, Thursdays; The Travellers Rest, Oughtibridge, Saturdays; and The Royal, Dungworth, The Blue Ball, Worrall, and The Wharncliffe Arms, Wharncliffe Side, on Sundays.

REVIEW: Kate Rusby At Christmas, Harrogate Royal Hall, December 12

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

Calling all ‘Holly Heads’! Hark, hark, here comes Barnsley skylark Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at York Barbican

So, this is Christmas for Kate Rusby, South Yorkshire pub carol enthusiast and self-proclaimed Holly Head

KATE Rusby At Christmas is by now as much a winter tradition as mulled wine, mince pies and LadBaby at number one.

In its 14th year, or maybe 15th as Kate and husband musician Damien O’Kane debated at Harrogate Royal Hall on the opening night last Sunday, this celebration of carols banished from Victorian church services for being too jolly returns to York Barbican on Monday night.

Those carols – among them 30 versions of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night – have been sung lustily for 200 years at Sunday lunchtimes from late-November to New Year’s Day in the pubs of South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, and have made their way on to five Rusby Christmas folk albums, complemented by Kate’s own winter songs, Cornish carols, Christmas curios and festive favourites.

The tour’s first week was scuppered by Kate’s bout of Covid, but she recovered in time to pick up the sleigh-ride reins at Harrogate last weekend in the company of her regular band and the “Brass Boys”.

Mindful of saving Kate’s voice, Charles Hutchinson sent his questions by email.

How will the set list differ from your last live Christmas shows in 2019, Kate? Have you come across more old pub carols demanding inclusion?! 

“It’ll be quite similar actually, as my current Christmas album is Holly Head, which I released in 2019. So, the set is based around that album and we’ve rejigged the rest of the set list as there are now five Christmas albums, so quite a lot of older songs to go at!

“There’s always more pub carols reminding you to be included next time and another album is planned!”

Have you written any new winter songs since your Holly Head album? 

“I’ve been messing about with new songs, but nothing complete as yet. We’ve been concentrating on my new album to celebrate 30 years touring, so that’s taken most of our time over the last few months.”

Starry, starry night: Kate Rusby in a sparkly party dress at one of her Christmas concerts. Mike Ainscoe

What’s the set design for the 2021 Christmas show?

“We have a lot of twinkle and sparkle; we have the return of our giant crocheted snowflakes, which I adore. We haven’t used them in a few years, so I’m delighted to have them back on tour again.

“Oh, and our Ruby Reindeer will be joining us on stage of course! She deserves her own horse box as she’s toured with us for so long now.” 

Would you agree that Christmas concerts are needed more than ever after the silent darkness of last winter and beyond?

“Yes, completely! Any concerts, all the concerts!! We are social creatures; humans have been singing together since time began. It’s proven to release happy hormones in the brain when we sing, and even more so when we sing with others. It’s so lovely to hear people singing away with us.”

Monday at York Barbican closes the live tour. Will there be anything extra that night to mark the finale?

“Ooooh, who knows?! Things like that are a bit on the hoof with me. Depending on occurrences on tour…I’ll keep you posted!”

Where and when will your Jolly Holly Wrap livestream show be held?

“It will be live on the night from a secret location in South Yorkshire on Tuesday! It will be myself and the lads in the band. We wanted to do something for the people who are quite rightly still nervous about coming out to actual gigs, people who struggle to get out to gigs in normal times and people overseas who physically can’t join us.

“It’s such a strange time to tour and I want to include as many people as we can so no-one feels left out. We’ll be performing the songs live with fun and banter from 7pm. You can find the ticket info on my website, katerusby.com.

“We finish the gigs in York on December 20th, so I decided to add another show and we can have a wrap party whilst playing all the songs we love.” 

Kate Rusby, deep in the midwinter greenery for her Holly Head album artwork in 2019

You mention that you have been working on your new album. How is it progressing and when might it be released? 

“Yes, the aforementioned 30th anniversay album, called 30: Happy Returns. It’ll be released in April, just ahead of our 30 tour. Can’t wait! So excited about it all.

“We did an album at 10 years [called 10, naturally], 20 years [20], and 30 has come along all of a sudden! Each of those albums, we looked back at songs I’ve previously recorded and reimagined and re-recorded them, some with special guests.

“We’re doing the same with 30 and I have to say I’m bursting with excitement about the guests on 30; I can’t wait to reveal all.” 

You have adapted so well to lockdown times with concert livestreams and home recordings from “the front room”. Do you envisage this becoming a regular format as part of an artist’s repertoire?

“I’m guessing yes. I really loved the connection with our audience through lockdown; it seemed to bring us closer rather than apart.

“We did a series of little performances from our sitting room; I called them the ‘Singy Songy Sessions’, performing a different song each time. It was lovely hearing the stories from the people who saw them and what the songs meant to them. We plan to do more of them – and to keep streaming a Christmas gig of course.”  

And finally, Kate, are any of this year’s Christmas singles to your liking? Elton John and Ed Sheeran? Maybe Gary Barlow & Sheridan Smith? Or Abba? 


Kate Rusby At Christmas, York Barbican, December 20, 7.30pm. Please note, tickets bought for Kate’s postponed December 20 2020 concert remain valid. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York