Live Reviews

Kate Rusby – Stoller Hall, Manchester: Live Review

Kate Rusby – The Stoller Hall, Manchester – 12th May 2023


We’ve not had Kate Rusby on the ATB pages yet this year. In fact, she was last spotted in December ’22 dressed in a donkey costume. Moving swiftly on…, our view of her return to Manchester at The Stoller won’t be the only appearance At The Barrier, as a busy year of Rusbee-ing continues with the annual Underneath The Stars Festival (she’s headlining the final night) and Christmas shows already lined up.

The current tag of the ‘Est 1973’ year of touring is a stark reminder of how long Kate has been wowing a loyal and ever-growing audience. The 10, 20 and 30 Happy Returns albums have acted as timely landmarks as Kate heads towards her own half-century milestone on 4th December (the Xmas tour begins three days later in York, so plenty time to dry clean the donkey costume and get the greetings prepped).

Tonight sees Kate and the band’s first visit to The Stoller Hall, (unless one of them has sneaked in a gig of which we’re unaware) rather than the equally plush Bridgewater Hall or out of town in Warrington or Stockport. Just by Victoria Station, it’s dead opposite the Manchester Arena where operatic supremo Andre Rieu is appearing on the same night. A small group aiming to enter the Stoller has to be directed across the street as they’re seemingly at the wrong venue. No accounting for taste.

Meanwhile, as Kate and the boys start their own show, it’s with a reminder that she’s still a force in the Folk music field. One that she might have moved away from over the years, or even, shock horror, been accused of subverting, noted by the (joke) Folk police. who brought her to task at the 2022 Underneath The Stars festival. The Outlandish Knight is a perfect example of how she’s brought the traditional right up to date for a modern audience. A bit of a dark start to the evening she admits but from a dark and atmospheric introduction, we get the chance to see how there’s much more to the 2023 Kate Rusby than singing folk songs on a stage surrounded by decorative flowers in the style oof Manchester’s own James.

Her band has shifted from the acoustic guitar/ melodeon / fiddle core to one that sees Moog synths, drums and at several stages, THREE electric guitars. We Will Sing gets treated with the fearsome Fender three-pronged attack, with three in evidence to give the song a contemporary poppy bounce; the three guitars chiming rather than Quo-style heads down rocking and accompanied by not the only appearance of some electronic percussion sounds. The subtle evolution (not revolution…) of the sound into an ever-changing electric core has Duncan Lyall often laying down the double bass to set up the lower end with Moog (and possibly some bass synth) while Damien O’Kane’s usually banjo armoury plays second fiddle to an assortment of electric six and four strings. Even seeing Nick Cooke armed with the six string these days is no longer a surprise.

If I Had A Boat is arguably the highlight of the first set, bouncing and bobbing as it should (a very fit and lean-looking Sam Kelly on accompanying vocals) and highlights, along with We Will Sing, how the sonic palette is changing shape. And I DO love some drums when it comes to these new/re-arrangements.

The banjo makes a rare appearance on High On A Hill, which heads back into rustic and organic territory, but for money’s worth, the delivery of Until Morning trumps the lot. When Dylan plays and pulls a rabbit from the hat with a stunning performance of something from his library of work that has his fans declaring “worth the admission price alone” – it was one of those moments (along with Bitter Boy at Stockport Plaza a few years back – which sounds a very ‘Dylan fan’ thing to say). A real emotional clout around the ears. “Counting stars to count the cost,” raises goosebumps and gives another elbow dig in the ribs for Kate Rusby the contemporary songwriter, of which there’s much on show tonight.

As is traditional, the band – Damien O’Kane, Nick Cooke, Duncan Lyall, Josh Clark and Sam Kelly – get to strut their stuff in the second half. Their tune medley is always a highlight, this year the combo of Step And Pull, Bowel Shifter (and possibly Force Ten – NOT the Rush version) all having a bit of a toilet theme and sees the band getting, in Kate’s words, a bit “sweaty round the edges.” Meanwhile, the main set closes with another little nudge – Blooming Heather one of the most communal of folk songs that has a special place and position at her own festival and has become Kate’s own Meet On The Ledge.

And – in between the music, the storytelling and general banter feels like listening on on a Kate Rusby podcast – maybe the next step in the wealth of opportunities that could see the gang rivalling Toyah and Robert Fripp with their outlandish Sunday lunch broadcast which has gained a life of its own. As soon as the music starts, the game faces are on, but they certainly have plenty of fun and the occasional bout of silliness (usually on Kate’s stage carpet), doing it.

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