Imagined Isle: Kate Rusby + Boat To Row @ Town Hall, 14th May 2016

Imagined Isle: Kate Rusby + Boat To Row @ Town Hall, 14th May 2016Imagined Isle: Kate Rusby + Boat To Row @ Town Hall, 14th May 2016

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There is a singular aspect that we all have in common and this is that we must all hail from somewhere. Though our relationship to this starting point may not always be so uniform. Our affinity with the “homeland” will differ greatly from one person to the next. Some of us will pack up and ship off the first chance we get, never wishing to return to the townscape that bore witness to our most formative years. Others will find that such an abandonment of the ties that bind is to go against the very moral fibre that exists at their core. Kate Rusby hails from Yorkshire, a county often referred to as “God’s Own Country”; and she would definitely fall into the latter category.

Indeed, Rusby delights in teasing tonight’s audience with her regular references to home, enforcing the playful notion that Yorkshire, more specifically, her home town of Barnsley, is the greatest place on earth. This message is relayed via the delightful narratives offered up between each song. The audience revel in these moments, often hilarious in content — nobody had told me just how warm and funny Kate Rusby is — and always, completely absorbing. This shameless / tongue-in-cheek endorsement of her home county will extend to not only Rusby and her husband, Damien O’Kane’s very own folk festival — the ‘Underneath the Stars Festival’ held in Barnsley each July – but also to a wholly familiar brand of tea produced in the same region, demonstrated by the mug that Rusby will drinks from between songs.

Though there’s no denying Rusby’s allegiance to the north, tonight’s show feels like a homecoming of sorts. The affinity with which Birmingham has for Rusby and her outstanding band is evident by the fact that the venue is sold out for this, the third night of the Imagined Isle Festival. Rusby’s affection for the city, the audience and most notably, the town hall, will be mentioned throughout a set that will exceed the official curfew time by some minutes. One would think the belated timekeeping is deliberate, not only as a gesture of thanks for all those in attendance tonight, but also because Rusby and her band are so clearly having such a wonderful time of it.

Before Rusby finds her way to the stage, the expectant audience are to be treated to the music of local band, Boat to Row. This six-piece band are a superb selection for the much coveted support slot. They have enough of a footing in the traditional elements of the folk tradition to appeal to tonight’s audience, but it is also clear that Boat to Row have a definite agenda to take the form somewhere else, to create something unique to them, something wholly original. Such aspirations must always be encouraged, no matter the outcome. Thankfully, the outcome tonight can only be described as a definite success. The group, led by Michael King, who has an early Donovan crispness to his voice, are received rapturously by not only the crowd, but Rusby herself, as she will go on to make mention of the group’s merits on numerous occasions throughout the evening.

Rusby and her band – Damien O’Kane (Guitar and Banjo), Duncan Lyall (Double Bass), Nick Cooke (Diatonic Accordion) and Steve Byrnes (Bouzouki) — emerge and it is some time before the music begins. Like old friends catching up, Rusby immediately descends into conversation with the crowd for some minutes. Of course, this delay to proceedings is anything but an annoyance, for it permits us the opportunity to enjoy the genuine warmth and humour that emanates from Rusby.

Much of the tonight’s set will draw heavily upon Rusby’s 2014 album ‘Ghost’. ‘The Night Visit’; ‘Three Jolly Fishermen’; ‘Ghost’ and ‘We Will Sing’ are all delivered sublimely, and with each song, Rusby offers us a peep behind the curtain, to understand the inspiration for the song, be it the selection of one traditional ballad over another, or for her own compositions, the events that led to the conception of the song. In some instances, like for ‘We Will Sing’, there is simply an interesting anecdote and the glimpse of how the song was originally envisioned. It transpires that Rusby was a hare’s breath away from securing the services of Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the recording sessions, only to be thwarted at the last moment by a scheduling issue. After this revelation, Rusby encourages the audience to join in on the chorus, and jokingly requests that if at all possible, the crowd could manage to sound like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, then all the better.

In addition to the aforementioned songs, Rusby will also perform ‘Awkward Annie’, ‘Pace Egging’ and a wondrous version of ‘I Courted A Sailor’, before delivering easily the best performance of the night on ‘Blooming Heather’. This encore performance is tinged with emotion, only enhanced by the hushed singing of the audience which reverberates around the town hall. This performance is enough to bring a tear from Rusby herself as she and her band thank the Birmingham crowd for their participation and with that, bid them goodnight.

Review: Chris Curtis

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