Sunday, 20 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Kate Rusby and Midnight Skyracer - Manchester Central, Manchester.

The former mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, has produced several stars for the musical firmament and this year’s Manchester Folk Festival featured two of them who coincidentally share the same initials – Kathryn Roberts at HOME last night and Kate Rusby at Manchester Central tonight.

The all-female five-piece Bluegrass band Midnight Skyracer proved to be an inspired and popular choice of support act to Kate Rusby. Despite having only formed in 2017, Midnight Skyracer have already received critical acclaim - and two International Bluegrass Music Association award nominations - for their debut album “Fire” (2018).

Several of the songs from tonight’s set were from “Fire”. The tender “Virginia Rose”, for example, co-written by Tabitha Agnew (banjo, vocals) and Laura Carravin (guitar, dobro) is a tender ballad and suits Agnew’s mellow voice perfectly whilst “So Long, Goodbye, We’re Through” is what Charlotte Carravin (guitar) describes as a “fast train song in the key of B” and showcases Leanne Thorose’s more powerful vocals.

Not on an album (yet – we are promised another one is on the way) is “Steaming Buzzard” which Charlotte proudly describes as having been inspired by the sight of a beautiful buzzard atop a steaming manure pile one summer evening. Midnight Skyracer move effortlessly between tempos and moods (and Laura switches between guitar and dobro). The haunting “Shadows On The Moon” by Eleanor Wilkie (double-bass) is perhaps the best example of the band’s pitch-perfect harmonies whilst “Leaving On The Next Train” brought the set to a lively and powerful end. We will be hearing a lot more of Midnight Skyracer over the next few years though.

Kate Rusby’s arrival on stage after the interval was warmly received. Accompanied by Stevie Burns (bouzouki), Mick Cork (accordion), Duncan Lyall (double-bass / Moog) and Damien O’Kane (guitar), she began her set with “Benjamin Bowmaneer” from her 2016 album “Life In A Paper Boat”. “It’s a strange song”, Rusby opined, “but that’s what I like about folk music – you can write songs about anything”. Telling us the story – it’s about a tailor who made himself a horse out of all sorts of bits and bobs – she likened Bowmaneer to “The A-Team, you know, how they’d get locked in a shed with a few plumbing tools and build themselves a tank”. Rusby’s unaffected warmth and humour is undoubtedly as much a reason for her popularity as her singing.

Kate Rusby’s greatest love is for her family, and this shines through the whole set. Introducing “The Farmer’s Toast” she tells us how her parents met through folk music and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2018 whilst the incredibly moving “The Bitter Boy” is a poignant tribute to her beloved Uncle Stan. I confess to shedding a tear or two at this one.

There’s a lot of fun in this set too. Talking about “The Fairest Of All The Yarrow” Rusby points out that the Barnsley word for this flower is “yazzer” which leads her on to Yazz – “did you know that Yazz’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’ will fit to this tune?” It does, as she and O’Kane cheerfully demonstrated.

The life of a true Folkie isn’t just about music, of course – no, there are all sorts of arcane traditions involved! Take Pace Egging for example, which as far as I can tell is basically an excuse (as if one were needed!) for painting hard-boiled eggs and drinking lots of beer as we learn in “The Pace Egging Song”.

The set came to a close with an old Rusby favourite “I Courted A Sailor” (“of course, I never did – we don’t get many sailors in Barnsley!”) and finally – as an encore following rapturous applause – the tender “Underneath The Stars”, fitting given Rusby’s earlier description of the night sky as her “constant companion through 27 years of touring”.

On the subject of stars, I’d certainly give both of this evening’s superb acts five of them!

Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 19/10/19

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