KATE RUSBY – Philosophers, Poets & Kings (Pure PRCD53)

PhilosophersIncredibly, Philosophers, Poets & Kings is Rusby’s 17th studio album in just over 20 years. Once again, a collection of the traditional and self-penned with a couple of covers for good measure, it pays homage to her Yorkshire roots, both musical and personal, as well as furthering her exploits into electronic realms with Moog, synths and programming.

It opens though without any techno frills on her setting of a traditional song, ‘Jenny’, which, although I’ve been unable to track down its provenance, I would assume to originate from Yorkshire and tells the playful tale of Yorkshire Jen, the long shout outsider who proves to have the stamina to stay the course when the others can barely trot. As befits the subject, it builds into a sprightly drum thumping number that features cornet and flugelhorn, Michael McGoldrick on flute, double bass, diatonic accordion and Ron Block on banjo as well as Damien O’Kane on guitars and vocals. Not only that, it’s reprised in a remix version as the penultimate track that strips out flute, bass and accordion and replaces them with Anthony Davis’s programming for which you might want to break out the folk glow-sticks.

Horses also get a mention in the languidly paced ‘Bogey’s Bonnie Belle’, a much recorded bothy ballad about impregnation out of wedlock and the class system divide popularised by Scottish Travellers, here featuring O’Kane on tenor guitar, Ross Ainslie on whistles and moody Moog provided by Duncan Lyall. Apparently, when she was young Rusby’s family had a Staffy named after the song, which leads nicely into the swayalong title track. Another traditional song set to a new tune, celebrating the inspirational power of the vine in promoting poetry and song that namechecks Diogenes, Plato and Democritus it also harks to wine-fuelled family singsongs and, who knows, may well have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’.

The first original number comes with ‘Until Morning’, a twinkling I’m by your side lullaby of sorts essentially about how it’s always darkest before the dawn, followed by the two covers, first up being a rousing reading of Thompson and Swarbrick’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’ from Liege and Lief, although fiddle is conspicuous by its absence, substituted by whistles, Moog and programming. The second is a rather more left field choice, being an emotionally plaintive take on Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ featuring just Rusby and O’Kane’s tenor guitar, Rusby having first performed it on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show.

Co-penned with dad Steve and featuring wheezing accordion and whistles, the whimsical lurching ‘The Squire and the Parson’ is apparently based on a local folk tale involving much strong wine, a night-time coach journey and the two characters mistaking each other for a highwayman and knocking one another about.

A bittersweet mood shrouds ‘The Wanderer’, a poignant self-penned story about a man from her village suffering from Alzheimer’s who spends his time walking in search of his lost soul mate. Staying local with a dedication to the Barr Family who host Rusby’s Underneath The Stars Festival, ‘The Farmer’s Toast’ is another airy, waltzing accordion-based arrangement of a song originally published as a broadside in the early 19th century celebrating the idyllic pleasures of farming life a century earlier.

That soul-swelling sense of joy spreads over the Rusby original ‘As The Lights Go Out’, on which, joined by Chas MacKenzie on electric guitar and Sam Kelly on vocals, another anthem to hope in the face of loss, grief and doubt as she sings about facing the dawn with a smile and how “Tonight the stars are yours and mine.”

It closes though on a much darker note the self-penned ‘Halt The Wagons’ conceived as a lullaby to the 26 children, 15 boys and 11 girls aged 7-17 from Silkstone, who, in 1838, were drowned in the Barnsley Huskar Pit disaster when the coal mine shaft in which they were working was flooded in a freak storm, their bodies found with their arms around each other for comfort. Written to commemorate the 180th anniversary, it features evocative Yorkshire brass and euphonium but, more movingly, 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir of the same ages and gender, recorded underground at the National Coal Mining Museum of England. It’s impossible to listen to without welling up.

The booklet features quotes from three Greek philosophers, among them Aristotle who said “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” Kate Rusby bears the torch.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

‘Jenny’ – live:

Kate Rusby announces new album and tour dates

Kate Rusby

Pure Records presents Philosophers, Poets & Kings, the 17th studio album from award-winning folk singer Kate Rusby. Seamlessly blending old and new across twelve tracks of traditional folk, covers and self-penned songs, the inimitable contemporary folk songstress’s new solo album is a deeply personal collection which pays homage to her family and musical heritage, and home life in Yorkshire.

With Philosophers, Poets and Kings, Kate Rusby raises a toast to her parents. She recalls an upbringing filled with music; whether recording songs performed during wine-fuelled family singalongs or her formative years spent watching festival performances by famed musicians including Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick.

As you could tell from the unmistakable strains of Moog on 2016’s Life In a Paper Boat, Kate Rusby’s (kind of) gone electronic. No-one gave her the Bob Dylan treatment on tour and shouted “Judas” at the appearance of weird contemporary machinery, so adventures in synthesised sounds have made for a brave new world so far.

It’s not quite time yet to call in The Pet Shop Boys for a collab or reset your Rusby radar to Kiss FM, and Calvin Harris has not yet buzzed Barnsley, but 2019 sees Kate take the next steps in being increasingly less unplugged with Poets, Philosophers and Kings.

Hang on. Philosophers, Poets and Kings? What about this ‘brave new world’? Doesn’t that sound a bit historical and backwards-looking as an album title?

Yes…. And equally, no.

First and foremost, couldn’t we all do with a few philosophical voices offering genuinely complete and well-formed thoughts in 2019 as we struggle as a nation to reconcile ourselves with who we are and where we’re going? Equally if we struggle as individuals to achieve a mindful peace in the cacophonous whirligig of everyday life, oughtn’t philosophy to be welcome wisdom?

Secondly, surely poetry – the pursuit of beauty and truth – is even more necessary than it’s ever been? It was Aristotle who asserted, “It’s during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” So shines this album, as a good deed in a weary world.

Thirdly, and most importantly, isn’t the essence of really appealing modern folk a combination of careful homage to the past, but bringing age-old songs into the present with fearless innovation? That’s where you’re at with Philosophers, Poets and Kings: where the idea that you can only truly embrace the present if you have the past firmly in your bones rings entirely true.

Don’t get your glow-sticks and whistles out when you see the word ‘Remix’ next to track ten, but it is indicative of a novel approach in that the album carries two separate and distinct versions of the traditional track, ‘Jenny’. In Kate’s own words, “From the moment I started working on this song, I could hear two completely different ways that we could approach it… Turn this version up and get your dancing shoes on.”

As much as there’s the elevating presence of joy and much excuse for limbs to jig, there’s also the emotive, grounded sense of her South Yorkshire home that we’ve come to breathe in through our rarefied, Rusbified atmosphere over the years. ‘The Wanderer’ depicts a man from Kate’s village suffering from Alzheimer’s; ‘The Farmer’s Toast’ honours the family on whose land she hosts the Underneath The Stars Festival; ‘The Squire and the Parson’ comes from a local folk tale and carries a co-writing credit from Kate’s Dad, Steve.

Try to contemplate the final track, ‘Halt The Wagons’ without some increased action in your tear ducts. July 4th 2018 saw the 180th anniversary of the Huskar Pit disaster, where 26 children working in the mine lost their lives when a freak storm flooded the mine shaft. 15 boys and 11 girls aged 7-17years old, were drowned. They were found with arms around each other for comfort. Kate was asked to write a song to commemorate the disaster, and was joined by 26 members of The Barnsley Youth Choir, 15 boys and 11 girls, their ages 7-17. Together they went underground at The National Coal Mining Museum of England to film and record the children singing on the song: “They were brilliant. I wanted people to see and hear 26 children, to understand what a huge effect the terrible tragedy had on the small village of Silkstone (just up the road from me). Most of all I wanted to give a voice to those children and their mothers.”

The title track pays tribute to the inspiration for much poetry, philosophy and many a singalong: wine. With its mention of Diogenes, Democritus and Plato, associations with Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’ are never far away. Conversely, there’s a cover of Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’; never before has that song sounded so soberly plaintive.

Pour yourself a glass of something indulgent on May 17th and ‘Rusby-up’ your stereo. You’ll feel majestic.

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Philosophers, Poets and Kings is released on Friday 17 May. Kate Rusby is touring nationally from May – October 2019.

She headlines Underneath The Stars – the family-run independent arts and music festival held in Barnsley, South Yorkshire – from 2-4 August 2019.

Artist’s website:  www.katerusby.com

‘Jenny’ – live:

Tour dates

May

16 Stockport, The Plaza www.stockportplaza.co.uk

17 Derby Theatre www.derbytheatre.co.uk

19 Doncaster, Cast www.castindoncaster.com

23 Bradford, St George’s Hall www.bradford-theatres.co.uk

24 Peterborough, The Cresset www.cresset.co.uk

25 Bury St Edmond’s Festival (The Apex) www.buryfestival.co.uk

July

Sark Folk Festival, Sark www.sarkfolkfestival.com

August

2-4 Underneath the Stars Festival, Barnsley www.underthestarsfest.co.uk

17 Beautiful Days Festival, Devon www.beautifuldays.org

23/24 August, Tonder Festival, Denmark https://tf.dk/en

Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Shrewsbury www.shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk

October

09 Ulverston, Coronation Hall www.corohall.co.uk

10 Aberdeen Music Hall www.aberdeenperformingarts.com

11 Edinburgh, Assembly Rooms, www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk

19 Manchester Folk Festival www.manchesterfolkfestival.org.uk

20 October, Leicester Haymarket Theatre, Leicester. www.haytheatre.com