Kate Rusby
at the Anvil,
Basingstoke, UK
(26 September 2002)

Recently, the Countryside Alliance held a march and protest in the streets of London, purporting to save the countryside and working for issues such as farmers' rights. That message, however, was hidden under their more vocal efforts to preserve the British foxhunt.

No matter what their intentions, it seems as if there is at least one countryside issue that they have overlooked completely -- preserving its folk heritage. As members of the English folk revival from the '60s grey, wrinkle and celebrate long-time anniversaries in the music business, it sometimes seems as if there are few performers ready to follow in their footsteps. Luckily, Kate Rusby, the Barnsley lass herself, already steeped in the music business for 10 years despite her 20-something status, will help ensure that traditional English music will not die out. Not yet.

There's a pastoral air to Rusby's adaptations of traditional songs, and even her original material seems far removed from city life. Her opening number, "Sir Eglamore," harkens back to older and perhaps more innocent times. Even her humorous introduction to "The Fairest of All Yarrow," in which she explained changing a character's name to Billy from Willy as not to create any innuendos with the "have you seen my willy?" line, was relatively safe and innocent. And her cover of Iris DeMent's "Our Town," always fun to hear with her Yorkshire burr in place of DeMent's twang, only helped cement her pastoral setting.

As she introduced "The Duke and the Tinker," she described it as a "really mean song." Basically, it's the Christopher Sly story from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. The duke finds a drunken tinker on the street, brings him to his castle, cleans him up and tries to make him believe he's nobility. Later, when he's had more to drink and is sleeping, he's returned to the street where he was found. It doesn't sound very mean, but for Rusby it's pure evil.

Of course, she's not truly evil at all. She jokes back and forth with her band. She tells Scots jokes, while Scotsman John McCusker, on fiddle, informs the audience that Barnsley was voted the worst town in Britain. His punchline: "But they were really happy that they won something." Rusby's reply: "It's true. We're proud. I hear Glasgow's up for it next year," she said, while winking at McCusker. At one point, she left the stage so that the boys could play some tunes and show off their skills on their own. Later, she played solo, joking that she "couldn't find the boys," explaining with a smile that they probably were in the nearest pub. "They've got beer sensors," she said. She later related a story about how she and McCusker recently spent a lot of time in a pub while playing the role of a pub band in Heartlands, a soon-to-be-released film.

At the end of the show, she informed that us she once was told "it's bad to leave your audience on a happy note, especially if there are steps involved." All night she'd been joking about how few happy songs they perform, even describing how fans tell her she must "get some new happy songs" prior to performing a new song -- "I am Sad." "You're thinking it's just because we've run out of happy ones," she said with a grin. She closed with one of her own compositions, "Who Will Sing Me Lullabies," and wished us a safe journey home.

Is Rusby's on-stage performance merely an act? Are her seemingly innocent songs merely made to match her sweet, pure voice? Is her Yorkshire accent too heavy for a woman who's travelled internationally? It didn't seem as strong this time around as it has in the past. She joked about her Yorkshire upbringing, laughing as she explained she found her new song "Cruel" in a "book of ballads and songs from Lancashire," stating that she's "ashamed as a Yorkshirewoman" to admit that fact. However, while she's clearly proud of her Barnsley origins, she clearly tried to endear herself to the locals, complimenting Basingstoke's charity shops as she showed off the bracelet she bought for a mere 3.

But Rusby is a child of the folk community. Her parents took her to festivals as a child; they'd worked in the folk music scene themselves. (They still do. They were running the merchandise table that night. You want to buy a CD? Her mom will sell it to you.) She can make fun of the sillier parts of songs, joking about how the main character in "Polly" probably had a tired hand since the song implies she's spent years waving farewell to her love. Or, when asking the audience to sing along, she admits that we can pretty much sing anything on the chorus of "Farewell to Old England," "as long as it's got Botany Bay at the end."

It may be an act, but if it is, it's charming and is clearly working wonders both for Rusby and the folk music world, along with making sure the songs from England's countryside do not go amiss in the 21st century.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 9 November 2002

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