Kate Rusby at the Royal Festival Hall
Folk music is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, while Kate Rusby is busy celebrating 20 years in the business. Accompanied by her band and a selection of the musical pals who guest on her new album 20, including Eddie Reader and Declan O’Rourke, Kate put on an accomplished display of English folk both traditional and self-penned to a crowd of appreciative fans.
In a different venue this may have been a very different gig. While the RFH did an excellent job of staging the show with some well-designed lighting, folk music by nature is intimate – troubadours sharing their tales – and much of the charm and affection of Kate’s music was lost in the vast expanse of the hall. Had it been a smaller space perhaps the atmosphere would have been less flat, and more of the warmth of the pieces would have been captured. Sitting straight and still in a traditional concert hall to this music somehow felt wrong, and consequently it was less engaging.
The music itself was, of course, top notch in terms of quality. This is warm, comforting storytelling; Kate has an elegant voice and she knows how to use it to beautiful effect. Highlights included Unquiet Grave (the “obligatory ghost song” as Kate put it, “included to please the Folk Police”), shiver-inducing, mournful, and with a lovely ethereal arrangement complete with string quartet. The catchy I Courted A Sailor was a great example of ensemble music-making; 13 people on stage with a range of instruments from banjo to strings, well-balanced and completely together, while Bring Me A Boat was a lovely little song – serene and calm, with a beautiful flute part – but again its impact was somewhat cast adrift in the large hall.
Kate is famous for her Barnsley roots and she is pleasant, charming and very open with the audience, taking great pains to introduce everyone on stage and enthusing about their respective CDs and talents. It was a family affair, with brother Joe on sound (up the volume on the strings a bit, please), husband Damien O’Kane on guitar, and plenty of homely anecdotes to boot. This is all very endearing, but the between-song chatter became a little wearing, particularly as the concert contained an interval and was quite lengthy. The songs in this genre especially do not need to be narrated in advance – let the music do the work as it is designed for. One set with a good encore and slightly less chat would have increased the impact of the songs, which were indisputably of high quality.
Thankfully an instrumental interlude of lively Irish folk, featuring Ron Block (Alison Krauss & Union Station) on banjo and some brilliant mandolin soloing from the supremely talented Sarah Jarosz, injected some much-needed life into the show and was the only occasion where the musicians really let rip – adding a little bit of fun by cleverly seguing into the Muppets theme for good measure.
A professional concert by the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’, fans wouldn’t have been disappointed in the least, but a smaller, more intimate venue would have done the music more justice.
The new album, 20, is available now on iTunes. Find Kate’s tour dates on her website.
Watch the album teaser here: