At least there’s one modern Christmas tradition that isn’t a transatlantic import and doesn’t involve open warfare at the supermarket – Kate Rusby’s annual Christmas tour kicks off on December 3rd. And as an added bonus this year, we can also enjoy the release of Kate’s third seasonal album, The Frost Is All Over.
For years now, Kate has been taking to the road every December, with a series of concerts that bring her own special Christmas blend of song and story to fans up and down the country. These annual tours were inspired by the South Yorkshire tradition of singing carols and other traditional Christmas songs in pubs. It seems the pub-singing was started when the singers were deemed too enthusiastic (and provably too happy) for church and so decanted to local taverns to sing instead. Kate grew up in a family for whom this tradition was, and still is, at the very heart of Christmas.
Not satisfied with merely taking her Christmas cheer out on tour this year; for the third time Kate has taken to the recording studio to add to the festivities. In 2008 Sweet Bells was her first Christmas album. She repeated the success in 2011 with While Mortals Sleep, and songs from both albums have been a central part of her Christmas shows.
Of course, Kate’s love of traditional music, and especially traditional song, is such that she could never allow any aspect of that tradition to become staid or repetitive under her care. The Frost Is All Over should allay any fears along those lines.
With eleven new songs on her potential Christmas set list, can Kate’s fans expect anything new, special or wonderful in their Christmas stocking? The answer, to all three, is a resounding yes from the very outset, as the album opens with uplifting brass in Bradfield. This is a perfect upbeat and cheerful opening for the album. Bursting with brass and Christmas cheer, it’s the first of the songs that comes direct from the South Yorkshire pub-singing tradition. As always with Kate’s music, Andy Duncan’s brass arrangement is splendid for the occasion; alongside Kate’s silky and slightly melancholy vocal, the whole feeling is one of warmth and community.
Continuing with the Yorkshire tradition, Little Bilberry brings a different sound to the words of a more widely familiar Carol. As always, we all reap the benefit of Kate’s love for her own regional traditions in a melody that’s less hymnal and more sing-along than the more familiar Hark The Herlad Angels. There’s plenty room in the melody for harmonies too, and Nick Cooke’s accordion is the ideal vehicle.
Damian O’Kane’s acoustic guitar makes important contributions throughout the album, and perhaps most significantly in the clear and frosty introduction to Cold Winter. This beautiful song’s Elizabethan origins provide a less overtly religious carol and, instead, sing of the seasonal traditions of community and merriment. The contrast between the wintry opening and the growing warmth of brass and accordion throughout is a fitting and wonderful arrangement.
Cast out of thy books malevolent looks
That both beauty and youth will decay,
And wholly consort with
mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away.
Not all Christmas songs need be celebratory in nature, though, and what Kate Rusby album would be complete without a lively story? The Goose provides just such a diversion with a gently bawdy seasonal tale brought back by Kate’s Dad from a pub singing session. The inclusion of Damian’s banjo adds to the conviviality in this tale that was just made for community singing. Kate describes Mount Lyngham as a happy accident; two carols in one. The theme is familiar, but the melody is fresh and exciting. Meanwhile, there isn’t much that could say Yorkshire Christmas better than the gentle and heart-warming Yorkshire Merry Christmas!
The hint of swing provided by Kris Kringle on While Mortals Sleep has been ramped up to full effect this year, with Winter Wonderland. The brass quintet provide the bulk of the atmosphere in a gorgeous big-band swing sound; but electric guitar and Cormac Byrne’s percussion keep the euphoric tempo going and there’s a delightful brass/accordion duet.
There are a few well-judged changes, though, for The Frost Is All Over; the most obvious of which is the approach to the arrangements. Without straying too far from the sound that Kate’s audience knows and loves, for this new festive album there’s a more complex feel to the music. There are strong similarities to the approach taken with Kate’s 2014 release, Ghost. That album brought new depth and colour to Kate’s arrangements, and she’s managed to achieve the same effect with The Frost Is All Over. The previous, and wonderful, festive albums enjoyed a minimal level of instrumentation – enough to provide accompaniment, harmony and, of course, that gorgeous brass warmth. But also little enough to allow Kate’s mellow and enchanting vocal to shine through. Just as on Ghost, though, with Kate and her husband Damian O’Kane sharing the roles of Producer and Arranger, we have a sound that expands themes, enriches the instrumental sections and adds exciting new elements, such as Steve Iveson’s distinctive electric guitar on Cornish Wassailing.
Which brings us neatly to another refreshing aspect of The Frost Is All Over. Three of the songs Kate has collected for this album have come from Cornwall; more specifically they’ve come from the collection of Cornishman, Ralph Dunstan. Just as with Yorkshire, there’s a tradition in Cornwall of pub singing at Christmas, which is coupled, in part, with the very well known January tradition of Wassailing. And the Cornwall tradition has provided three very fine pieces for this album. Both the lyrical theme and the melody for Sunny Bank will be familiar and the setting for this Cornish version of the song is a fine example of the added vitality this album enjoys. Along with the pleasure of hearing Kate’s captivating vocal deliver a song that’s been with most of us all our lives, there’s a spine-tingling combination of acoustic and electric guitar from Damian and Steve that’s a sheer delight. Dilly Carol is similarly familiar, but not usually as a Christmas Carol. In its Cornish Christmas setting, though, with Damian’s banjo and Nick’s accordion, it’s perfectly placed mid-way through the album.
To close the album, though, we have something even more special, a new Kate Rusby original. The album’s title track, The Frost Is All Over, has a light-as-air opening for a sumptuous winter love song. If Kate was inclined to write and release Christmas singles – she’d surely be on to a winner with this one.
When the frost is all over and
the trees shed their tones,
A cold blanket of beauty
encasing their bones,
and the blackbirds and thrushes
to the pale sun they climb
Listening to the album, it’s easy to imagine how well certain aspects are going to work live. There’s the crowd-pleasing excitement of swing (make no mistake, Winter Wonderland will have them on their feet), an irresistible urge to join in the singing and ample scope for Kate’s detailed and enjoyable commentary. As with her two previous seasonal albums, it’s refreshing to hear, among the profusion of Christmas offerings, an album that doesn’t try too hard to push all the festive buttons, and doesn’t simply offer a series of (supposedly) different approaches to safe Christmas favourites. What Kate Rusby does in The Frost Is All Over, is take her own, beloved, Christmas traditions; add some of that unique Rusby magic and provide her audience with a large helping of genuinely warm, heartfelt Christmas cheer.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
03 – Scarborough Spa
04 – Huddersfield Town Hall
05 – Bath Forum
06 – Plymouth, Theatre Royal
07 – Islington, Union Chapel
09 – Sheffield City Hall
10 – Cambridge Corn Exchange
11 – Brighton Dome
14 – Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
15 – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
16 – Leeds Town Hall
17 – York Barbican
19 – Malvern, Forum Theatre
20 – Nottingham, Theatre Royal Concert Hall
Full details and ticket links: http://www.katerusby.com/