Kate Rusby At Christmas, York Barbican, 18/12/2019
“HOW nice to be back in mighty Yorkshire,” said the Barnsley
nightingale. “Don’t have to calm mi accent. Don’t have to worry about saying
the word ‘mardy’.”
That said, there is nothing mardy about Kate Rusby At
Christmas, her joyous celebration of South Yorkshire carols still sung heartily
in pubs, complemented by Rusby’s own winter songs and a brace of novelty
It turned out Rusby was the only Yorkshire-born musician on stage, her sparkling green party dress twinkling like a Christmas tree in the forest of men in black: her folk band and regular winter guests, the “Brass Boys” quintet.
“Ruby Twosday”, the decorative reindeer, was there too,
bedecked with fairy lights, her head nodding when Rusby asked her a series of
questions. Rusby had been given the option of a “Yay” or “Nay” reindeer, and in
keeping with the surge of positivity and humorous banter that accompanies these
winter-warmer concerts, she chose the affirmative.
As evocative as the crisp sound of walking in newly settled
snow, Hark Hark, from 2017’s Angels & Men, opened the set with the Brass
Boys in situ, before Rusby explained the roots of these Christmas concerts, now
in their 12th year, with Christmas album number five, to showcase.
Holly Head, so named by Rusby to equate her love of
Christmas music with petrol heads’ love of cars, featured prominently in her
two sets, each also sprinkled liberally with versions of While Shepherds
Watched too. More than 30 exist, apparently, and Kate is working her merry way through
Here We Come A Wassailing and Sunny Bank (a variation on I
Saw Three Ships) were early festive highs before the bleak midwinter’s chill of
Lu Lay (aka The Coventry Carol) brought an eerie night air to the Barbican,
Duncan Lyall’s Moog keyboard sending temperatures dropping. Not for long,
however, as Rusby introduced her row of knitted miniature hippos to herald
Hippo For Christmas, a particularly perky rendition of John Rox’s novelty
wish-list song, parping tuba and all.
Rusby’s own Christmas compositions are among her very best,
never more so than this year’s newcomer, The Holly King, played early in the
second set, where she evoked Clannad while stretching out fruitfully into folk-prog
Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo, a Canadian ditty by David Myles, wholly suited Rusby’s tightrope walk between melancholia and hope, and after a break for Damien O’Kane to lead the band through dexterous instrumentals and unexpected Christmas classics, Rusby steered us towards Christmas with an extended Hail Chime On, a delightful Walking In A Winter Wonderland and the latest heroic rescue mission for Barnsley’s Big Brave Bill.
No Rusby At Christmas show would be complete without the fancy-dress encore, and this year they really made a meal of it, Rusby dressing as a Christmas pudding, the Brass Boys as sprouts and O’Kane as, wait for it, a roast turkey for Sweet Bells and Yorkshire Merry Christmas.
Ruby Twosday was not the only one nodding in approval as Kate
Rusby At Christmas grows ever better by the year.
BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby has released her fifth
album of South Yorkshire carols and original winter songs, Holly Head, so named
on account of her love of Christmas music.
As with her fellow festive collections on her Pure Records label, 2008’s Sweet Bells, 2011’s While Mortals Sleep, 2015’s The Frost Is All Over and 2017’s Angels And Men, it is being promoted by a Kate Rusby At Christmas tour with Kate’s regular band and brass quintet.
Songs range from the Rusby original The Holly King, to a
cover of John Rox’s novelty Christmas number Hippo For Christmas, via the
carols Salute The Morn and Kate’s sixth version of While Shepherds Watched and
God’s Own Country variations, Yorkshire Three Ships and Bleak Midwinter
Now part way through her 14-date concert series, Kate answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions ahead of Yorkshire Christmas shows at Leeds Town Hall on December 13 and York Barbican on December 18.
Christmas albums, Kate. Five! That must surely be a record? What keeps drawing
you back to make another recording for the Yule season?
“I know, five albums, how on
Earth has that happened?! It’s also album number 18 of mine, which I can’t
believe either. Where have all those years gone? I still love making music and
touring, so that time has whizzed by in a flash.
“The Christmas side of things began for
me in the ‘pub sings’ around South Yorkshire. We were taken along as kids; our
parents would be in the main room singing away, while us kids were sat with the
other kids in the tap room, colouring and drinking pop, unaware that the carols
and Christmas songs were seeping into our brains!”
“It was only when I’d started touring around the country, I realised the ‘pub sings’ are quite specific to South Yorkshire and people were unaware of these amazing songs we have.
“They’re mostly songs thrown out of the churches by the Victorians as they were thought to be far too happy! Ha! Those who loved singing them took them to the pubs, where you could combine a good old sing with beer and a natter, and there the songs have remained and kept alive, being passed down the generations.
“I decided to start the Christmas tour
to take the songs out around the country to show them off and share them out
again. It’s just perfect when we go back to a town again and they’re singing
the songs back to us. It brings me such happiness. Like, ‘my work is done
Christmas albums keep coming too…
“There are so many songs still to go at, I’ve no idea how many I’ll end up doing. I am a Holly Head, after all!”
What’s the story behind Hippo For Christmas, the quirkiest song on Holly Head? One for the Rusby daughters, no doubt!
“Aw, it’s such a brilliant song! I came across it while I was researching for the album. I love how it’s the magic of Christmas through the child’s eyes, ‘cos why on Earth would Father Christmas not be able to bring a hippo? He’s magic, right?
“But, of course,, once it’s there, how do you look after it? The brass arrangement on that track is just a delight; you can’t help but smile as they play it. It’s a big tuba moment! They don’t get many moments, tubas, do they? Well, it does on this song!”
Shepherds Watched is the Christmas carol that keeps giving! Another one has
popped up on the new album…
“Well, there’s over 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched that get sung in the pubs here in South Yorkshire, so I’ve still got a lot to go at! This one is actually to the tune of a different song that I also love, but I wasn’t that keen on the words, then realised it went with the While Shepherds words, so yey, another has now been invented.”
What is a
Holly Head exactly, Kate?!
“Ha ha!! Well, I decided anyone who adores Christmas music is called a ‘Holly Head’. You know, like car fanatics are petrol heads. I thought it was the perfect title for such people, and I’m a fully paid-up member of the Holly Head club! ”
the most significant Christmas song on this album for you? One of your own
“Oooh, am I allowed to choose one of my
own? Well, OK, I will, I’ll choose The Holly King. It celebrates the more
pagan side of Christmas. I wrote it after reading about the winter king, The
Holly King, and the summer king, The Ivy King.
“Legend has it that the two met twice a
year and had almighty battles. Going into winter, the Holly King would win and
reign for the winter months. Then the Ivy King would wake and overthrow the
Holly King and reign through the summer months, and on they went in a perfect
“I just loved the images that it
conjured up and a song came flowing out. I gave him a wife, The Queen of Frost,
who creeps across the land to be with him for his time. In fact, I’m writing
her song at the moment, so she will appear on the next Christmas album, I’m
How will you be adorning the stage for the 2019 Christmas shows? Maybe a new reindeer?
“Ooh yes, I can’t tell you too much or it won’t be a surprise. What I can confirm, though, is Ruby Reindeer will be taking her place on stage again; it’d be too strange without her now.
“We have a completely new set this
year…and there will definitely be sparkles.”
Who is in
your Christmas tour line-up this time?
“Ooh, this year we have me, hubby Damien
O’Kane on guitars and electric tenor guitars, Duncan Lyall, double bass and
Moog; Stevie Byrnes, bouzouki and guitar; Nick Cooke, diatonic accordion and
sleigh bells (ha!); Josh Clark, percussion, and our lovely, fabulous brass
boys, Rich Evans, Gary Wyatt, Robin Taylor, Mike Levis and Sam Pearce.
“So, 11 of us altogether on stage, and six crew, I think, and of course not forgetting Ruby Reindeer!”
you most want for Christmas, Kate?
“A big lump of Cornish Kern cheese – it won best cheese in the world last year and is just gorgeous – and a bottle of Bread and Butter white wine to go along with it. It’s a big creamy white; just love it.”
Kate Rusby At Christmas, Leeds Town Hall, December 13 and York Barbican, December 18. Box office:Leeds, 0113 376 0318 or at leedstownhall.co.uk/whats-on/; York, 0203 356 5441, yorkbarbican.co.uk or in person from the Barbican box office.
On a separate note
December 4, Kate Rusby received the English Folk Dance & Song Society Gold Badge,
in recognition of her 25-year contribution to folk music.
Among past winners were Cecil Sharp in 1923; Ralph Vaughan
Williams, 1943; Ewan MacCoIl, 1987; Peggy Seeger, 1987; Shirley Collins, 2003,
and Eliza Carthy, 2007.
on your Gold Badge, Kate. What does this award mean to you? Just look at the
names that have gone before!
“Aw, thank you. Goodness
me, I still can’t believe it. It’s just amazing to be considered for this award
as it’s recognition of my work from the massive organisation who work to
preserve and document folk music and dance.
“I’ve done various gigs at Cecil Sharp House over the years, the building where they’re based in London. One time, they let me use the library as a dressing room and, oh my word, I was like a child in a sweet shop with all the ballad books. In fact, I think I may have been late on stage due to reading the books.
“But, yes, a real honour to be added to
the list of Gold Badge winners. My love of the music has kept me entranced all
these years, so to be given this award is just incredible.
“It was presented to me at our gig at
in Sheffield City Hall, when it was also my [46th] birthday that
day; what an amazing birthday present.”