If the angelic tones of Kate Rusby and her Christmas show don’t get you in the festive mood then you have probably never experienced the magic of the season.
Curly haired as ever and with a voice that seemed a little more gravelly than usual she opened with the first of three versions of While Shepherds Watch, Cranbrook which she sang to the tune of On Ilkley Moor.
If you have never heard it sung this way before then it can take some getting used to. But it is a gentle version to ease people quietly into the Christmas mood and introduced the brass quartet which gave it more of a festive feel as well as adding a strong Yorkshire twang.
Sounding a little like a headmistress giving an address at a school assembly she gave the gathered fans the background to the carols, and more specifically how folk in God’s Own County make use of the songs now, mainly in pubs.
It was a night of carols, Christmas ditties and wassailing songs all done with Rusby’s gentle and friendly manner which is so endearing. Her lovely voice gives a certain magic to the festive sounds which continued with a Cornish wassailing song. Wassailing is an ancient tradition steeped in pagan beliefs where locals, mainly in rural areas, would walk the bounds of the land making a noise and singing to both scare off any evil spirits and to give thanks for the previous and coming harvest.
They would also put some of the produce from the land back into it as a thank you and as a way of ensuring the coming harvest would be bountiful. In some Church of England congregations this tradition is carried on but is often called Beating the Bounds where the incumbent clergy and church members would walk the bounds of the parish offering prayers to God in thanks for the previous and coming year and to protect their parish from the works of the devil.
Between the songs Rusby gave a vivid picture of growing up in Yorkshire and the homely traditions she was a part of and wants to preserve. She moved into Hark Hark What News? in which her caramel voice was accompanied by some lovely melodeon playing from Julian Sutton which added a European feel to it.
For the next number she picked up her guitar for Home, another gently ballad which benefited from the pleasant warble in her voice, she was joined on strings by Aaron Jones on bouzouki and Duncan Lyle on double bass.
This was followed by the traditional Holly and Ivy, which she had mistakenly introduced a couple of songs earlier. Rusby’s version had a much folksier, almost Morris dance tune which was perfect for her voice and was filled out again by Sutton’s soft music.
Her excitement about Christmas was obvious and she moved away from the traditional carols for Kris Kringle from her While Mortals Sleep Christmas album, which featured Gary White on trumpet. It was a cheerful sound which had the feel of a Disney song and could easily have been the soundtrack to one of their full length animations. It was stuffed with every Christmas cliché you could think of and liberal amounts of Ho Ho Hos and jingling jingles. It has that strange fusion of being mostly traditional but has a strand of 50s easy listening running through with parts of the tune picked out nicely by the brass element.
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A lot of the songs were given that authentic northern sound with the four piece brass section which really added colour to the music.
She took her appreciative audience through Poor Old Horse, which is another northern tradition which seems to have been lost. It was a straightforward ballad and a modern sound for something which is an old tradition.
Rusby went back to the more traditional carol of Little Town of Bethlehem which was a throwback to her childhood and probably to many of those in the audience. Rusby’s gentle and respectful voice turned it into a gorgeous song which was given an added sprinkle of magic by the brass section.
In the second half of the set she pulled out another wassailing tune, this time from her home turf and was a much skippier tune with light lyrics which wouldn’t have been out of place while dancing around a maypole let alone a Christmas tree.
She digressed from the festive theme for a couple of songs the first being the Lark and while introducing the story behind the song and the album 20 she actually used the phrase by gum. The new version recorded for the album featured Nic Jones, who hadn’t been in a studio for close on 30 years, but she managed to persuade him to get him on the disc.
The song is a dreamy ballad, the kind which shows how good, clear and soft Rusby’s voice really is.
Her next song, The Wishing Wife, was a more traditional storytelling folk tune about the relationship between a husband and wife complete with the obligatory moral tale which Sutton opened on the melodeon.
She followed this with Holmfirth Anthem a slow and gentle ballad where Rusby’s voice soared over the hall filling it effortlessly with clear tones.
The slightly bizarre mixture followed where they did a version of Joy To The World with a Mexican twist. The brass quartet laid it down perfectly and you could almost smell the fajitas over the mince pies.
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Jack Hackett aka Ardal O'Hanlon,
Dermot Morgan and Frank Kelly
They eventually launched into a Sutton-penned tune originally called Mac the Horse but subsequently changed to My Lovely Horse in tribute to Father Ted which was followed by O’Kane’s Dancing in Puddles, inspired by his and Rusby’s four-year-old daughter Daisy who enjoys the activity of the title then ended with a traditional Irish tune.
All of this was liberally peppered with traditional Christmas inserts starting with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The trilogy was an opportunity for O’Kane to show his excellent banjo playing skills. After which he sheepishly explained where he had gone wrong with the Mick McCarthy joke.
Rusby came back on stage with Walk The Road which although not a carol the band liked to play it during their Christmas shows. It has that rousing, anthem feel where it conjures up images of people travelling across the Yorkshire moors with wind blowing through their hair and clothes.
To end the night and just to make sure everyone was feeling festive she went out to We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Rusby’s Christmas show definitely has that feel-good factor about it regardless of the troubles and financial hardships of these times. It is just so pleasant to sit in the musical bubble she creates and enjoy and think of all that’s good in the world.