Blessed with a voice that would melt the coldest of hearts, even while it charmed the birds from the trees, Barnsley-born Kate Rusby backs up her musical gifts with the customary Yorkshire allocation of good common sense. Not the William Hague variety but the sort that doesn't fix what ain't broke. Rusby sticks to her traditional guns and her home-based, family-run record company as opposed to major-label deals and pop-crossover opportunism and her reputation, in consequence, is blossoming well beyond the folk world.
Now touring the UK to promote her newly released third album, Little Lights the follow-up to 1999's Mercury Prize-nominated Sleepless Rusby adheres, both on record and in person, to a so far winning formula: picking powerful traditional songs (mixed up, these days, with a few of her own composed in similar vein), surrounding herself with top-class accompanists, and letting that magical voice do the rest. Her first number, the classic murder ballad "Playing of Ball", immediately set the tone and quality of what was to follow; Rusby inhabiting the song as if it were her own secret sweetheart who'd been killed, yet at the same time tempering this naked emotion with a transcendent underlying serenity.
It's just one of several rich dualities at work in her singing, along with a bewitching combination of ardent brightness and velvety shade, airy lift and resonant weight, phrasing that's unerringly measured yet artlessly fluid, and a lustrous softness offset by the earthy edge of her Barnsley vowels.
The resulting timbre lends itself especially, and exquisitely, to songs of lost love and other heartbreak of which the traditional canon, of course, obligingly provides an abundant supply. Playing to her stren-gths, her set was predominantly a feast of sweet desol- ation, drawn from across her recorded repertoire: the spine-tingling ghost-lover tale "Let the Cold Wind Blow", the transportation lament "Botany Bay", the poignantly ambiguous "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight", and a superb, quietly searing rendition of Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died", her luxuriant, lingering delivery vividly conveying, but never milking, the depth of feeling distilled into words and melodies.
This wealth of woe was balanced by a few lighter-hearted numbers, including Rusby's regular bawdy party-piece "The Yorkshire Couple", as well as by the sparkling contrast of her chatty, scatty, resolutely down-to-earth demeanour and some hilarious anecdotes concerning cross-cultural misapprehensions encountered on a recent US tour. Her hand-picked backing band comprised five of the folk scene's finest current instrumentalists Scottish fiddler John McCusker, flute and whistle virtuoso Michael McGoldrick, accordionist Andy Cutting, guitarist Ian Carr, and Andy Seward on bass.
As you'd expect from a line-up of such class, their arrangements throughout were a model of less-is-more sensitivity and imaginative grace, beautifully fleshing out while never remotely obtruding on Rusby's rightful starring role.
Kate Rusby will perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 24 June (020-7960 4242)Reuse content