Few artists can rival Kate Rusby’s ability to bring traditional music to modern life, to infuse old stories and voices with all the sadness, violence and immediacy that more academic stylists lack. Nor can many rival her ability, with her own material, to write new songs that draw deeply, and effortlessly, from old forms.
Over her near quarter-century career she’s been heart wrenching, funny, startling, invaluable. She’s been Lady Margaret and Sweet William’s ghost, a young scorned lover making her way across the Atlantic to the new world and an old woman looking back on happiness as a distant memory. Playing the refined settings of Oxford’s Playhouse Theatre for the first time in four or five years (she couldn’t remember which), Rusby enacted yet more versions of the “creepy, violent” old England she has made her own.
Rusby and her expert band (lead by husband Damien O’Kane) began with Benjamin Bowmaneer, an old song, new to Rusby’s repertoire, about a war that begins innocuously before consuming the whole country. Played with a hiccup in the rhythm, Nick Cooke’s accordion, as it would throughout the set, providing a percussive edge to the four-piece band, the song seemed to draw from the same vein of violent “nonsense songs” as Nottamun Town (which, bewilderingly, Rusby has never covered.) It was a whirling frenzy of images: images of animals and insects, images of a war “where England fought to a man.” And all seemingly instigated by a scheming tailor, who, as a nation fought, “rode prancing away.”
The surrealism deepened with the unnerving nursery rhyme High On A Hill. Hypnotic in its circling melody, the lyrics were deceptively childlike, but, as the song moved on, the music so sprightly it seemed to increase in pace constantly, it was the references to the devil and the obliqueness of a lyric like “the eleventh day was hell” that rose to the surface.
The remainder of the first half was relatively light fare by comparison, as Rusby and her band worked through a series of songs extolling love, seasonal festivity and the simple virtues of communal life. There was the May Day celebration We Will Sing with its bittersweet entreaty to “welcome May and summer in”; Rusby’s own Hunter Moon which takes the moon’s seemingly ceaseless pursuit of the sun as an analogy for unrequited love; and The Three Jolly Fishermen, notable mainly for Rusby’s impassioned rejection of claims that the song is from the south rather than Whitby.
Rusby began the second set with a touching tribute to her hero, the great folk singer Nic Jones. As the lights turned green, smoke wreathed the stage and the band slowly worked their way into the eerie The Outlandish Knight (made famous by Jones) it was obvious the stakes were higher. The story of a rake who rides down from the shadowy, vague “north lands” with the sole purpose of killing young women, the band turned the song into a miasma, with the same thick fogginess in the sound as in Fairport Convention’s Reynardine. Whereas in the first set Cooke’s accordion had provided the syncopation, holding down a groove and sometimes seemingly stopping the whole thing from floating into the ether, here it threaded an unerring drone through the performance, breaking the spell only once when a jarring contraction brought the first chorus to a clattering halt.
As in her best performances, Rusby inhabited the song totally, as the narrator, the bloodthirsty knight and, with palpable relish, as the would-be seventh victim, who, after ordering the knight to turn around while she undresses, attacks and drowns him instead: “Lie there, lie there you false-hearted man […] six pretty maidens have you drownded here/And the seventh hath drownded thee.”
Better still was the maudlin Cruel, about a woman left behind when her fiancé is press-ganged into naval service. Starting out meek and dejected, the performance grew, deepened in pain, anguish and bitterness, until at the end, as Rusby repeated the first verse, her voice, the entire performance, took in a lifetime of regret: “Cruel were my parents to tear my love from me/Cruel was the press gang that took him off to sea/Cruel was the little boat that rode him off the strand/Cruel was the big ship that took him from the land.”
The summoning of old voices continued with the traditional The Ardent Shepherdess, but even more evocative was Rusby’s own Awkward Annie about a courtier who sends Annie a series of animals, each of which comes back maimed, dead or otherwise mutilated. With an irresistible ache in the chorus and so much freedom in the sound as Rusby swung the line “oh no, don’t you say so” off the staccato rhythm, the music never sounded better all night.
Returning for an encore amid rapturous applause, the band began the slow, drifting Blooming Heather. A centuries-old folk music staple, Rusby herself has been performing it for years, on her album Awkward Annie and to close shows and festivals. Ostensibly a simple courtship ballad, in Rusby’s hands (especially live) it’s always struck me as concerning mortality more than anything. There’s an irreducible mystery lurking amidst the seeming simplicity of lyrics like “and we’ll all go together/To pick wild mountain thyme, all around the blooming heather.” At the Playhouse it was as powerful as ever, and, with the crowd in the vast theatre providing the obligatory ghostly harmony on the chorus, perhaps more haunting than I’ve ever heard. On a night when fractured visions of life both celebratory and tragic floated into view and disappeared just as mysteriously, this final note of unsettling beauty was a fitting one.
Review by: James Dawson
For details of Kate’s latest tour dates visit: www.katerusby.com/tour-dates