REVIEW: Kate Rusby has a hippo, a banjo, a Christmas pudding costume and a Holly Head for Christmas

Kate Rusby wearing her Holly Head, the title of her fifth Christmas album. Pictures: David Lindsay

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 numbers.

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.

Hark, hark: Kate Rusby at Christmas

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 them.

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.

The album cover for Holly Head

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 terrain.

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.

Charles Hutchinson

Absolute turkey or totally gravy? 2019’s Christmas albums rated or roasted….

A Dickensian-clad Robbie Williams gives a thumbs-up to his 13th number one album

Robbie Williams, The Christmas Present (Columbia) *****

Wrapping: Robbie is one of the very few contemporary artists who truly embraces album artwork: pleasing to the eye, telling a story and setting the scene for a multitude of surprises. A Dickensian-clad Rob goes shopping on a street not dissimilar to York’s Shambles.

Gifts inside: Double disc features a cocktail of new and evergreen classics. Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, boxer Tyson Fury, Jamie Cullum, Helene Fisher and Mr Williams Senior, alias Poppa Pete, are guests across the 28 tracks. Tyson Fury? Really? Yes, on Bad Sharon. It’s a big hit. Of course.

Style: Mostly upbeat and certainly very jolly. A very content Robbie Williams is on top form.

’Tis the season to be jolly: Embrace this genuinely enjoyable album of good cheer, curated with love and affection.

Scrooge moan? Rob’s fabulous update of Let Me Entertain You, for Aldi’s Christmas campaign, and the rumoured cover of Fairytale Of New York with Britney Spears didn’t make the final cut. Maybe next year?

White Christmas? Not on this set, although you do get fabulous covers of I Believe In Father Christmas and a jazzed-up Merry Xmas Everybody with Cullum.

Blue Christmas? Absolutely not. Robbie’s gift is one of happiness!

Stocking or shocking? This is destined to become one of the greatest and most cherished Christmas albums of all time.

Ian Sime

Ex- Leeds United midfielder Chris Kamara tackles ten Christmas evergreens

Chris Kamara, Here’s To Christmas (So What/Silva Screen Records) ****

Wrapping:  – At 62, Chris Kamara is a very handsome fellow. The chromosome photograph is very becoming, yet not at all seasonal.

Gifts inside: The consummate Renaissance Man, this ex-Leeds United footballer is now a regular television presenter on Sky Sports. Who knew the former sailor and Bake Off finalist could also sing? Unbelievable, Jeff. The very talented crooner tackles ten glorious upbeat evergreen classics.

Style: Big Band, all day and night long.

’Tis the season to be jolly: …and singalonga with Mr Kamara to Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman and It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.

Scrooge moan?  Don’t be so silly. This is a joyful swinging affair.

White Christmas? Absolutely not. We are, however, treated to Winter Wonderland and Let It Snow!

Blue Christmas? Christmas with Mr Karama is a very jolly event.

Stocking or shocking? Chris Kamara is number one on the Jazz chart. Good for him. This is a very happy album.

Ian Sime

Bing-go: White Christmas guaranteed for Crosby

Bing Crosby with the London Symphony Orchestra, At Christmas (Decca Records) ****  

Wrapping: Decca have done their best with a selection of period family photographs. The set is boxed in a handsome, rather snazzy, gold-embossed sleeve.

Gifts inside: Fourteen of Mr Crosby’s classic Christmas songs given a modern orchestral makeover, with special guests The Puppini Sisters, Pentatonix The Tenors and, from the archives, The Andrew Sisters and David Bowie.

Style: Bing Crosby invented the Christmas album. This album is Bing’s original iconic tones with a complementary lush orchestra.

’Tis the reason to be jolly: The chance to rediscover why we love secular Christmas music so much in the first place.

Scrooge moan? There’s no reason to be a Grinch when Bing sings.

White Christmas? Well, the best-selling Christmas single of all time had to be included. It’s the law.

Blue Christmas? No, this is an upbeat Easy Listening classic.

Stocking or shocking? If you’re tired of Bing, you’re tired of Christmas! Every stocking should have one.

Ian Sime

Christmas Day? Let’s play Michael Buble….again

Ian Sime’s top five Christmas albums of all time

Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1994)

Donna Summer, Christmas Spirit (Mercury, 1994)

Whitney Houston, One Wish – The Holiday Album (Columbia, 2003)

Olivia Newton-John & Friends, Christmas Wish (BMG, 2007)

Michael Buble, Christmas (Reprise, 2011)

We wish you a metal Christmas: Rob Halford “gives off some attitude”

Rob Halford with Family & Friends, Celestial (Sony) **

Wrapping: Halford, the metal god from Judas Priest, giving off some attitude as he is pasted on to wrapping paper. Inside we see his family and friends (his brother Nigel and his band Voodoo Sioux) smiling and giving the devil horns metal salute. Worth a second glance? No.

Gifts inside: Heavy metal, from a much outdated style, set awkwardly against the simple melodies of the eight Christmas chestnuts, with four new songs cleverly woven in.

Style: Imagine if buzz and noise music never happened. Imagine if the musical time clock was stuck in 1985. It’s old-school metal, full of tight-trousered screams and flashy guitar solos, with some great drumming too. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are ballads and a choir-like song too.

‘Tis the reason to be jolly: Deck The Halls and Hark The Herald Angels Sing rise above the rest, with a powerful punk-like attitude and some searing musicianship. Halford’s voice remains formidable. Lead track Donner And Blitzen should be big in Scandinavia and the Black Forest.

Scrooge moan: If you look for merry metal Christmas albums in the shops, you will probably only find this (although, perhaps for the most persistent, also Halford III: Winter Songs from 2009). There’s a good reason for that; putting the two styles together does neither any favours. It makes the tough looking and talented musicians sound daft, and would anyone into this type of music admit to owning a copy?

White Christmas? The only snow, in blue, is printed on the CD.

Blue Christmas? The mood is more defiant, but A Winter’s Tale is more sombre.

Stocking or shocking? Shocking, for the unreconstructed rocker in your life. who will enjoy it, just to be rebellious.

Paul Rhodes

“Piano settings really suit the monochromatic winter world in the songs” on Rick Wakeman’s Christmas album.

Rick Wakeman, Christmas Portraits (Sony) ****

Wrapping: A grand piano perched in front of a starlit Christmas tree in a wintry wood. A strange star is rising in the sky. The booklet has a few portraits of the great man, the credits and a simple message.

Gifts inside: 14 traditional tracks, including seven medleys, from the purveyor of The Grumpy Old Christmas Show Tour that visited Harrogate Royal Hall on December 10.

Style: This is the sound of one man and his piano (a Granary Steinway Model D), from .

‘Tis the reason to be jolly: The album is beautifully recorded, and the piano settings really suit the monochromatic winter world in the songs. Like Jan Johannson’s Jazz På Svenska, which timelessly dances with folk tunes, Wakeman’s variations on these age-old melodies are both graceful and fitting.

Scrooge moan: This is certainly more BBC Radio 3 than prog, so won’t please all of Wakeman’s admirers, and enjoyable while it is, it does all blur together.

White Christmas? No, this is a more traditional set aimed towards the classical fan rather than frequenter of supper clubs (you know who you are).

Blue Christmas? There is certainly melancholy, and a sense of bitter cold, but the melodies should cast sunlight into the gloomiest of moods.

Stocking or shocking? Stocking, for anyone who gets lost in their thoughts while pondering the frost through the kitchen window.

Paul Rhodes

Aimee Mann’s Christmas album: so good, she released it twice

Paul Rhodes’s top five Christmas albums of all time

The Staple Singers, The 25th Day Of December

Carols from Kings

Aimee Mann, One More Drifter In The Snow

The Louvin Brothers, Christmas With The Louvin Brothers

Christmas Greetings From Nashville – featuring Skeeter Davis

Flowering anew: Kate Rusby’s fifth Christmas album

Kate Rusby, Holly Head (Pure Records) ****

Wrapping: Barnsley nightingale Kate in snowy white with her very own Holly Head, a Christmas garland of wintry flowers, foliage, twigs and leaves atop her curls. A “Holly Head” loves Christmas music like a petrol head loves cars, she says.

Gifts inside: South Yorkshire pub carols, Yorkshire winter songs, one new Rusby composition and a couple of novelty numbers (John Rox’s Hippo For Christmas, from 1953, and a third rescue mission for Kate’s Yorkshire Tea-powered Barnsley superhero, Big Brave Bill).  

Style: Kate and her touring folk players, augmented as ever by the “Brass Boys”, on her fifth Christmas collection in 11 years. Songs merry, melancholic and daft, all to be found here.

’Tis the reason to be jolly: Kate’s sixth version of While Shepherds Watched (only another 24 still to go, apparently!); the titles Yorkshire Three Ships and Bleak Midwinter (Yorkshire); and Kate branching out into folk prog via Clannad with the beautifully frosty The Holly King.

Scrooge moan: Hip, hippo, but not hurray for The Hippo Song, despite Mike Levis’s pomp-pomp tuba. Bah Humbug to such jollification.

White Christmas? No, but Lu Lay (The Coventry Carol) is chillier than a Yorkshire moor in winter.

Blue Christmas? Bleak Midwinter (Yorkshire); that title says it all.

Stocking or shocking? Christmas Is Merry, sings Kate, and Holly Heads and hippo devotees everywhere will love it.

Charles Hutchinson

Going on holiday: Josh Rouse’s Nashville Christmas album

Josh Rouse, The Holiday Sounds Of Josh Rouse (Yep Roc) ****

Wrapping: No hint of winter in a painting with warm red, pink and yellow hues. The opening song title, Mediterranean X-mas, explains it, as American singer-songwriter Rouse has only latterly moved to Nashville from Valencia after ten winters in Spain.

Gifts inside: Rouse’s first“ holiday concept album”, his 13th in all, contains nine originals, complemented by a bonus disc bearing the gifts of three demos and Rousing versions of trad holiday songs All I Want For Christmas, Up On The Housetop and Let It Snow.

Style: Breezy, warm, vintage folk, pop, country blues and jauntily jazzy rock, not too far removed from Nick Lowe’s 2013 seasonal selection, Quality Street. Indeed Basher urged him to make this record when touring together in 2015.  

Happy holidays: Josh Rouse raises a glass of bubbly to Christmas

’Tis the reason to be jolly: Lush, warmly reflective songs of childhood nostalgia and holidays spent away from home are the perfect accompaniment to the year’s glowing embers. Red Suit, New York Holiday, Lights Of Town and Christmas Songs are the pick.

Scrooge moan: None, unless you crave the absent sleigh bells, children’s choirs and Yuletide standards you won’t find in the Rouse house.

White Christmas? No. Presumably gone on holiday to somewhere colder.

Blue Christmas? Sadness seeps through Letters In The Mailbox and Heartbreak Holiday.

Stocking or shocking? Rouse should be in your house come Christmas Day.

Merry Cryptmas from The Cramps’ vinyl vaults

Merry Luxmas, It’s Christmas In Crampsville!, Season’s Gratings From The Cramps’ Vinyl Basement (Righteous/Cherry Red) *****

Wrapping: Family album photo from the Fifties, one woman, her glasses, her pearls, her dog and her overladen Christmas tree. What a swell party that looks.

Gifts inside: In the ghostly spirit of Christmas past, an original cassette compilation by the late Lux Interior of Sacramento psychobilly punks The Cramps, lovingly entitled Jeezus ****, It’s Christmas, is re-activated and re-mastered. Lux and Poison’s Ivy raves from the Christmas crypt add up to 31 of the “strangest Yuletide 45s ever”, now accompanied with ace sleeve notes by Mojo magazine’s Dave Henderson.

Style: Wild and weird rock’n’roll music and jumpin’ jive for beatniks, hipsters and swinging hep cats. Doo-wop ballads, novelty oddities, jailbird laments, mighty bluesmen, even skewed country (George Jones’s Eskimo Pie), are all Cramped in.

’Tis the season to be jolly: So many.Especially Tony Rodelle Larson’s impossibly cool Cool Yule; Louis Armstrong’s joyous Zat You, Santa Claus; Joan Shaw’s insistent I Want A Man For Christmas and Jimmy Butler’s innuendo-laden Trim Your Tree, culminating in the Reverend J M Gates’s fire-and-brimstone sermon, Did You Spend Christmas Day In Jail.

Scrooge moan: Spike Jones and His City Slickers’ dogs launching a barking-mad assault on O Christmas Tree. Doggerel.

White Christmas? Anything but. Make way for The Marquees’ Christmas In The Congo, more like.

Blue Christmas? Too many to mention, but these will do for starters: Floyd Dixon’s Empty Stocking Blues, Little Esther & Mel Walker’s Far Away Christmas Blues; Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends’ Christmas Spirit, T-Bone Walker’s Cold, Cold Feeling and Washboard Pete’s Christmas Blues.

Stocking or shocking? Do you know someone who hates Christmas? Present incoming.

Charles Hutchinson

Great work: Emmy The Great and Ash’s Tim Wheeler do Christmas

Charles Hutchinson’s top five Christmas albums of all time to discover

Bruce Cockburn, Christmas (Columbia, 1993)

Glasvegas, A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss) (SonyBMG, 2008)

Emmy The Great & Tim Wheeler Present…This Is Christmas (Infectious Music, 2011)

Smith & Burrows, Funny Looking Angels (Kitchenware/Play It Again Sam, 2011)

Tracey Thorn, Tinsel & Lights (Strange Feeling Records, 2012)

Oh, and everyone should have Christmas gifts for you from Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, Kate Rusby and Sufjan Stevens.


Kate Rusby wearing her Holly Head garland

CharlesHutchPress has five CDs of Kate Rusby’s Holly Head to be won, signed by Kate in festive green, courtesy of Pure Records.

Question:  Which tea-drinking Barnsley superhero has Kate invented for a series of songs?

Send your answer with your name and address by email to, marked Kate Rusby Competition, by Tuesday, December 31.

Kate Rusby wants a Holly Head, cheese and… a hippo for her Yorkshire Christmas

Kate Rusby in Holly Head mode for her fifth Christmas album. Picture: David Lindsay

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 (Yorkshire).

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.

Five 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!”

“I decided anyone who adores Christmas music is called a ‘Holly Head’,” says Kate. “You know, like car fanatics are petrol heads.” Picture: David Lindsay

What happened next?

“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 here’!”

And the 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!”

While 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.” 

Holly and the ivy: The album artwork for Kate Rusby’s new winter album

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! ”

What is the most significant Christmas song on this album for you? One of your own compositions?

“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 cycle.

“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 sure!”

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!”

What do 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; York, 0203 356 5441, or in person from the Barbican box office.

Golden moment: Kate Rusby received the Gold Badge from English Folk Dance & Song Society earlier this month. Picture: David Angel

On a separate note

ON 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.

Congratulations 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.”