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Concert Review Intimate, spellbinding folk

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

KATE RUSBY, plus JOHN McCUSKER, at Makor, 35 W. 67th St., NYC. Nov. 9.

Right off the bat, Kate Rusby issued a warning to the sold-out house at Makor: "I hope you know you’re in for a thoroughly depressing evening. There are only four songs in all of folk music that are happy, but I’ll spread them out evenly so you won’t get too depressed."

This was the first concert ever given by the Yorkshire vocalist in America, and her performance was anything but depressing. The droll, often deadpan wit of her opening remarks was just the beginning of a night filled with charming anecdotes, impish asides, and splendid singing that underscored just how mature and poised this 26-year-old folksinger is. Wearing white beachcomber pants, a black top, and platform sandals showing off painted toenails, she seemed completely at ease singing and playing guitar beside her fiancé and frequent musical partner, Battlefield Band multi-instrumentalist John McCusker.

Rusby has a breathy, tender, tremulous alto rarely straying outside the middle register, yet her interpretive ability seems boundless within it.

She knows how to select songs — Irish, British, American — that suit her voice, and she sings them with spellbinding effect, often creating the intimacy of a living room or even a confessional.

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No hint of stateside opening night jitters could be detected in her first song, "The Cobbler’s Daughter," on which she played acoustic guitar while McCusker accompanied on cittern. That led into "The Wild Goose," normally a chest-thumping sea chantey that she transformed int a fragile, beautiful ballad.

Two of the songs Rusby sang, "I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight" and "The Unquiet Grave," conveyed an emotional honesty of soul-clenching impact. The lone time she switched from acoustic guitar to electric keyboard was on "The Unquiet Grave," and her delicate, spare playing was a perfect complement to McCusker’s low whistle and fiddle playing in support of her own quietly impassioned vocal. Even the crowded bar in back was pin-drop silent.

Rusby’s humor was not limited to the patter between songs, a responsibility she shuffled off at one point on McCusker, who got a loud laugh when he asked the audience, "Have you a president yet?" Her a cappella rendition of the comically carnal "Yorkshire Couple" had the crowd singing the chorus and chuckling at the same time.

Taking a well-earned solo turn on fiddle, McCusker performed "Al’s Big Day," a lovely slow air he wrote for his sister’s wedding, and segued into a rousing "Floating Candles" he learned from piano accordionist Karen Tweed, a former bandmate of Rusby in the Poozies.

The concert ended poignantly with Rusby’s singing of a lullaby she wrote one sleepless night. She said it was inspired by a distressing moment in her life.

No such moment appeared this night. Abetted by John McCusker’s mastery on three instruments, Kate Rusby strengthened her status as one of folk music’s brightest international stars in a concert her first U.S. audience won’t soon forget.

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