This is the opening gig in the Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival. We arrive after trying to park the car amongst the campervans, and caravans, and arrive as students from other university folk clubs arrive after long coach journeys with rucksacks prepared for indoor camping over the weekend.
I have two quick shocks in succession, the empty cavernous bar is selling real ale, and being used for indoor camping. I realise this doesn't mean you put up your tent indoors, you just bring sleeping bags.
We take our seats, another first for me, and are welcomed to this opening concert, and told that in the compere's hometown in America a cover band of Kate Rusby are the big thing.
Kate Rusby walks out tea mug in hand and with a four piece band behind her and in her northern twang she welcomes us before getting the murder ballad out the way first with 'Playing Of Ball'. Melodeon, double bass, guitar, half guitar, and Kate's vocal, she's coughing a bit between songs, asked photographers not to take pictures, and sounds slightly drawn when she talks in her sing song Barnsley voice, but her vocal is as clear and as full of depth as ever.
Andy Cutting on accordion swells the music, Ian Carr brings his restrained guitar to layer the music, and Andy Seward fills the rhythm wonderfully with his double bass. Damien O'Kane (more usually with Shona Kipling) has joined the band to provide a fuller musical sound with banjo, and guitar, but I find that his playing particularly on banjo is too distinct, separating him from the rest of the band, instead of adding to the sound, his plucking stands out and counterpoints the chorus of other instruments.
Kate, who seems to pick up more and more throughout the gig, perhaps she's under the weather, suggests a sing along at times, but despite the wide variation in age range, from coach loads of university students, to veteran folksters the participation isn't much to write about.
Kate's candour, and banter between songs is genuinely funny, and it's an old song 'The Blind Harper' from 2003's 'Underneath The Stars' which has 14 verses all different as Kate points out, which proves to be one of the early highlights, it's a moment where the players on stage all really gel.
Kate takes up her guitar for 'Let The Cold Wind Blow', the lighting is perfect, the players well lit, the roof of the Great Hall is washed in rose, and behind the band smoke swirls, it adds atmosphere and the crowd are warming as the pace picks up with a light hearted tale of her nephews acting out 'Sir Eglamore'.
Kate leaves the stage, the band play an instrumental number, it shows their mastery of the folk instruments, and the genre, there's moments of slap bass solo, intricate accordion infusing the layered sound. There's the lilting guitar and throughout the banjo punctuates the harmonies.
As we leave our seats for a break, there's opportunities to buy hand crafted bags from the band, or wander the music equipments stalls in the foyer, or wander upstairs for the ceilidh taking place with Stomp and Gordon Potts.
I can't help thinking of O'Kane's sharp contribution and I rather miss Rusby's former husband John McCusker and the contribution he brought to her sets I've witnessed in the past. How difficult it must be to fill his 'sonic' shoes. We re-take our seats for 'The Bitter Boy' with the band playing as a trio, Kate on guitar, with Ian, and Andy. The latter doing a stirling job with his melodeon to generate some fiddle-esque sounds. Their sound is so rich it envelops the full house.
By 'The Sweet Bride' I'm again questioning Damien's inclusion, the banjo sounds too loud and brash, although this could be because I'm seated right in front of him, his picking seems incompatible, when it needs to be gentle, harsh rather than harmonious.
New song 'Not Me' shows Kate's songwriting is still firmly steeped in the traditional while revealing contemporary themes, the charming lass, adds heartfelt woe as she sings, "Life goes so quickly, you can drown down here."
My mixed feelings about the new boy vanish when he reveals his fine singing voice on an old song from Armagh, 'Dobbin's Flowery Vale.' The band and the music is so much more knitted. This traditional Irish song has a wonderful swirling mix, clearly he's at home with material he knows well, and I feel it's merely his inexperience of Kate's tunes which is showing tonight. This song shows what a wonderful contribution he can make once he knows the songs well, and shows him less as a 'session' musician.
Before 'Planets' we're treated to a wonderful anecdote about Rusby's dog Doris and a Superman outfit, Seward takes up banjo for this, and Ian the bass, it's a pure treat for the crowd. Another treat comes at the encore, after Andy has given us his recipe for carrots earlier in the set, Damien offers an Irish stew recipe, as Kate tunes her guitar. The duo then deliver a wonderful version of the 2001 release 'Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?' and it's a perfect end to the evening. Tonight, once again Kate has shone, with a natural, vibrant performance, and some wonderful anecdotes.
Sated with Celtic music, we de-camp to the bar, with its beds making it look slightly like a refugee camp, to grab another Otter ale and discuss the merits of dancing until we drop at the late night ceilidh, and which workshops to consider tomorrow. Dartmoor Step, Orange Jousting, and some Cornish dancing all sound rather good fun.
Playing Of Ball
High On A Hill
The Blind Harper
Let The Cold Wind Blow
The Duke And The Tinker
The Bitter Boy
The Old Manv The Sweet Bride
Dobbin's Flowery Vale - Damien O'Kane
I Courted A Sailor
Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?
review by: Scott Williams
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