Kate Rusby @ University Concert Hall, Limerick, October 31st, 2016.
It was Halloween in Limerick and we were in for some treats and even a trick. This was one of three concerts in Ireland to promote Kate Rusby's new Life In A Paper Boat album. The stage was set up with a simple black backcloth; there was a string of lights under the Moog synthesizer and a number of "paper" boat lanterns strewn around.
Kate Rusby walked on dressed in red shoes and a stripped dress; she was a little bundle of fizzing energy. Joined by her band, all dressed in black, they were Kilkenny native Steven Byrnes on bouzouki and guitar, Duncan Lyall, "the Scottish Ross Poldark" on double bass and by Nick Cooke on a very English sounding accordion. Stage left was her husband Damien O'Kane, who produced the new album; he commanded his corner on guitar, electric and acoustic tenor guitars and his signature banjo.
Kate began with Benjamin Bowmaneer, with its moody refrain of Castors Away, which she learnt from her dad, Steve Rusby. On ending the song Kate mulled over the huge body of folk song available to singers: songs about love, loss, crimes of passion, patriotism, bawdy humour to scolding tales and dire moral observations. She explained how in many English towns the only shops open on a Sunday are second hand book stores, they are a favourite haunt of hers before she goes to sound check.
It was in one such store she found the words to the Ardent Shepherdess, a moral tale where the heroin's flock is expanded one kiss at a time.
Kate said the Rusbys, although perhaps considered a little eccentric, had been residents of Penistone for hundreds of years. A remarkable feat given the way industry sucked the life out of rural England in the 19th century.
Kate said she was the recipient of a long tradition of music, not only her own father playing the banjo as an alarm call for school, but the pub singing tradition that still flourishes in South Yorkshire. She asked if we had a Pace Egging custom in Ireland, the audience said no, but it's not too far removed from our own Wren customs. Her version of the Yorkshire Pace Egging song was full bodied and gloriously lyrical.
Talking of strong brews Kate does have a lot to say about Yorkshire tea, it is part of the act and her stage persona. We had insights into the family life of the O'Kane-Rusbys, delightful snippets about young daughters learning folk songs and the collection of dire-warning-songs that Kate was feeding them (she joked).
Kate Rusby Show of Hands John Tams & Barry Coope Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys ÍMAR Rob Heron & the Tea Pad Orchestra ...
A hilarious interlude whilst "the boys discussed their pedals" (a technical hitch to you and me). Family life was very much at the heart of her song Life In A Paper Boat, written in response to a news bulletin, where she saw a refugee mother and child, rescued at sea on their way from North Africa to Europe. It was a deeply emotional moment for all of us. Other songs included Hunter Moon, The Mermaid and The Elfin Knight.
During the second half of the show, Kate left the stage in the hands of the musicians for "some manly tunes" and they played a big set that included Michael Rooney's Figit Feet.
Kate returned, with more tales of Barnsley, she said "Now we are all grown up we have our own festival called Underneath The Stars, an old fashioned festival full of music and magic like they used to be" and we were all invited next July. There were more jokes, a big theatrical wink during the final number suggesting if we clapped loudly, she'd come back for an encore. So we did and the standing ovation brought the troupe back. They returned with a trick, wearing powder blue capes, Dave Lyall sporting a ghost mask, it was blue comedy glasses for Damien O'Kane.
Kate explained the final song began life as children's bedtime story, about a Yorkshire superhero Big Brave Bill. The song and the following performance was a fun pantomime. I had to hand it to Kate, folk music can be very worthy, technically brilliant, politically sharp, but it is best when rooted in community, this was music that could be enjoyed by her 4 year old daughter or an octogenarian in the Concert Hall.
We all left happy, there wasn't going to be a chance of ghosts scaring us tonight. It had been a stirring show...down to a tea!
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #258/2017 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Kate Rusby, (3) Underneath The Stars Festival (unknown/website).