Rusby holly head

Reflecting on season’s grief, longing

“Holly Head,” Kate Rusby’s latest Christmas album made with her mostly Irish-born band, including husband Damian O’Kane, represents a shift from the jubilant to a more reflective, melancholic mood.

By Colleen Taylor

‘Tis the season for new music. I always look forward to the Christmas month for two reasons: the obvious merry-making and the added bonus of an influx of new music by some of Ireland’s best musicians. In past columns, I have listed my favorite Irish holiday albums and while those still circulate regularly in my Christmas playlists, remaining some of my highest-ranked Irish albums of all time, this year sees three new additions to the Celtic Christmas collection.

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While I might be bending the rules of this “Irish Christmas” theme, Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby nevertheless deserves first mention here. With a recent Christmas album two years ago plus an original studio album release earlier this year (“Philosophers, Poets, and Kings”), I was not expecting another festive album from Rusby in 2019. Her newly-released Christmas album, “Holly Head,” therefore, has been a welcome, quickly yet masterfully churned-out surprise to round off Rusby’s already-successful 2019. Rusby’s three other Christmas albums, “Sweet Bells” (2008), “The Frost is All Over” (2015) and “Angels and Men” (2017) are among my favorites for the holiday season, and I confess I sometimes listen to them throughout the calendar year. This latest edition to her Christmas collection, “Holly Head,” certainly partakes in the same theme and style as her previous three Advent albums, but it also marks a distinct departure from their ambiance.

Rusby’s other Christmas albums signify audible mirth—tongue-in-cheek lyrics, word play, happy French horns, the jubilant sounds of the holiday season. But “Holly Head” offers something more melancholy, even doleful. After all, despite its identity as a “merry” season, December also brings its own unique from of grief and longing. The season invites us to acknowledge empty seats at the dinner table and think about loved ones who had once filled them. It provokes reflection on “Christmases long long ago”—ancestors who celebrated in a similar way, on the same day, centuries past. For better and worse, paradoxical December puts these conflicting emotions of joy and sorrow side-by-side. As if acknowledging this truism, Rusby, having spent a long time on the joyous side of the pendulum, has directed her voice in the opposite direction. Her track “The Holly King” encapsulates this shift, offering a mystical, sorrowful ballad, in which ghosts feel present as a silent, backing chorus.

You can find affectation and drama in this album, brandished through minor key chords. For example, rather than the celebratory “Mary’s Boy Child,” Rusby gives us “Lu Lay,” a poignant, sorrowful lullaby that voices an unspoken mystique and longing. A gorgeous rendition of “Bleak Mid-Winter” speaks for its own mood. Yet the album is not depressing as such, but calms and soothes through these melancholic tracks, offering a space where those lesser-voiced feelings that come along with Christmas can find release.

Despite this overarching subdued and saddened atmosphere, Rusby’s “Holly Head” retains, in certain songs, familiar merriment. Rusby offsets nostalgic longing with some quintessential Rusby-esque humor and playfulness in songs like “Christmas is Merry,” “Mistletoe Bough,” and especially “Hippo for Christmas.” Rusby clicks with the Christmas classic “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” as if she was voice and persona for whom the song was meant all along. I have never heard it done more naturally. On top of Rusby’s masterful vocals, which easily move between emotional registers, the album “Holly Head” showcases outstanding instrumental arrangements from her primarily Irish-born band, including her husband Damian O’Kane. The instrumentals are complex yet pared back so that you can hear each nuance, each of the many instruments involved, from distinctive French horns to slow accordion and quiet guitar strings. This album stands up to Rusby’s previous holiday records, and most definitely passes the test. It will not only extract your December spirit but also take you on a wistful journey into the mystery of Christmas.

On the other side of the Irish Sea, harpist Aine Minogue is taking up the mantle of heralding Celtic Christmas mystery. In the wake of her recent, 14th studio album, “In the Name of Stillness,” the musicians has released a Christmas collection entitled, “Epiphany: Celtic Christmas Music,” an exquisite instrumental take on Christmas hymnal classics like “O Come Emmanuel,” “What Child Is This,” and “Oíche Chuain.” Each harp chord has the distinction and character of a singing voice capturing the beauty of traditional Christmas melody. Minogue also showcases her own vocal skills on the album, with mystical, whispered singing in tracks like “The Seven Joys of Mary” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” This album is soft and deliberately slow—a Christmas lullaby to drift you off to easy sleep.

Celtic Woman Christmas tour

Finally, right on cue and in time for the season, Celtic Woman has released another Christmas album, this one entitled “The Magic of Christmas.” It’s worth noting that Celtic Woman remains Ireland’s best-selling all-female group, and this new Christmas album seeks to justify their title and historic prolificacy. Interestingly, this particular Christmas album from Celtic Woman, released at the end of October, demonstrates the American influence on their Celtic sound—and not the other way around, as is typically the case. In this collection of Christmas hits, the classically-trained Irish singers perform everything from “Angels We Have Heard on High” to, surprisingly, “Feliz Navidad.” An eclectic mix to be sure, but one they back up with their showmanship. Celtic Woman has embarked on their annual Christmas tour across the continental U.S., and will spend December in the Midwest, coming back east for a show in Pennsylvania on the 18th.

In our neck of the woods, the New York tristate area, some favored Irish musical acts will take the stage. First up, one of my favorite Christmas shows, that of Cherish the Ladies, has returned this December with upcoming performances in Connecticut, New Jersey, and most importantly, two large-scale concerts at Tarrytown Music Hall on December 21st. Having attended the traditional Tarrytown Cherish Christmas concert in years past, I can guarantee it should not be missed. If you would like to rock out amidst your Christmas jubilance, Eileen Ivers and her band will perform in New Jersey, Bay Shore, N.Y., and Norfolk, Conn., on Dec. 19, 20 and 21, respectively. You can also catch the theatrical Irish dance show, “A Celtic Christmas Story,” at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre in New York City on Dec. 22.

With all these performances and new albums, there are endless opportunities to get your dose of Celtic Christmas this year.

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