Kate Rusby, Union Chapel, review: ‘a lesson in the breadth and possibilities of folk’

Kate Rusby at the Union Chapel. Picture: Josiah Mortimer

Kate Rusby at the Union Chapel. Picture: Josiah Mortimer - Credit: Archant

Her December concerts unveil the “Christmas songs rejected by the Victorians for being too happy”

I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a scrooge. I don’t have a Christmas jumper, I’ve not done my shopping and I get annoyed if the ads come any earlier than December 24. But I’ll wager that Kate Rusby could get even the most callous winter-whiner like me canvassing for Santa.

For the nearly 900 people who packed out the de facto Ambassador for South Yorkshire’s sold-out Christmas gig at Union Chapel, December 9 was the date of the festive folk calendar.

And for a superstar of the “traditional” acoustic scene, Barnsley-born Rusby is pleasingly light-hearted about her role in the contemporary folk revival. Her December concerts unveil the “Christmas songs rejected by the Victorians for being too happy”.

But if you think that’s a by-word for cheesy, you’d be way off the mark.

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These are the December songs of the West Riding pubs she grew up around, with her characteristic Northern tones a pleasing contrast to the often public-school dominated acoustic scene today.

But with a full band, including husband Damien O’Kane on guitar, banjo and backing vocals, as well as a big brass section, these songs take on a whole new life in the mulled warmth of the stunning Union Chapel.

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For any other artist, playing three versions of the same song at a gig would be a mark of repetitiveness. But for Kate Rusby, each rendition of While Shepherds Watched offered a lesson in the breadth and possibilities of folk – with accordion joined by the bass of a Moog synthesiser, trumpets joining the studio-quality glow of Rusby’s vocals.

In fact, you could have closed your eyes and been listening to her (third!) Christmas album itself, were it not for the acoustics of the venue wrapping you in a veritable Reindeer onesie of sound.

From the breathy, enrapturing emotion of Hunter Moon, a Rusby original, to the jocular carol of Kris Kringle, Kate Rusby is the master of contrasts. And that includes finishing even the most moving of songs with a characteristically Yorkshire “Ohh yes”, before picking up her massive mug of tea.

And it includes too her mix of Yorkshire ballads and, unexpectedly, Cornish sing-a-longs, with the two “meeting somewhere in the middle at Gloucester services”.

It’s usually out of some family obligation or begrudging seasonal duty that you go to a carol concert. But Rusby seems to have cracked the code for putting on the perfect Christmas gig.

As she approaches 25 years on tour, and with more albums out than Madonna, all this scrooge can say is: let the Christmas records keep rolling. Ohh yes.

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