LIVE: Phil Cunningham's Christmas Songbook - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 18/12/2022

LIVE: Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18/12/2022

If I were to start a debate about what constitutes folk music, it would probably be unwise. (After all, there’s sections of the internet where some people have not got over the Sisters of Mercy splitting in 1985.) So, I’m going to go with music of the people. Much like many genres, there’s so many different factions (do you know your black metal from your speed metal from your doom metal, for example?) and tonight on stage we hear many different songs that might not necessarily be what some people think of as folk music per se, but they belong to the people.

Phil Cunningham MBE is quite a legend in Scotland. Best known for collaborating with fiddle player Aly Bain (not here tonight but certainly with us in spirit, as he is often referenced on the stage), his Christmas Songbook tours have become an institution north of the border. Having been waylaid by COVID cancellations, the group are on tour with a fantastic line-up: Karen Matheson MBE on vocals; Kris Drever on guitar, vocals and mandolin; Eddi Reader on vocals, guitar and occasional percussion; multi-instrumentalist John McCusker; double bassist Kevin McGuire and highly regarded traditional guitarist Ian Carr. That’s impressive enough on paper (well, screen) but what unfurls is a night involving Christmas music that stretches back centuries to the present day.

The five-piece Songbook Brass Ensemble kick matters off with a medley of Christmas tunes, and then we get the six main musicians, who give us two fantastic sets over the course of the evening. ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing‘ shows just how well the voices of Matheson and Reader harmonise together. ‘Silent Night‘ has been recorded by numerous artists since it was first unveiled over two hundred years ago, and performed by an unthinkably larger number – but there’s something particularly effective about hearing Karen sing it in Gaelic while Eddi sings it in English and the audience join in.

There’s also songs that you wouldn’t necessarily think you might hear at a Christmas concert – the cover of Sandy Denny‘s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes‘ seeks not to replicate Fairport Convention‘s original, but to give reflection on the passing of time, particularly over the last few years. Also, it might seem almost incongruous to hear ‘Merry Christmas Everyone‘ (as popularised by Shakin’ Stevens) and Schubert‘s ‘Ave Maria‘ performed by the same group, yet it all works incredibly well. It’s quite possible that many of the audience don’t know Ron Sexsmith‘s ‘Maybe This Christmas‘ but it’s a prime example of how songs can start to enter the public consciousness.

Being folk musicians they can mix songs together for wonderful effect, so ‘Silver Bells‘ mixes with a traditional Scottish waltz and they close with a lovely medley of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas‘ and ‘White Christmas.’

One of the best things about tonight is that it feels so intimate and informal that you could be watching them play together in a pub. They’re brilliantly in tune with each other in more ways than one, and it’s a hugely fun atmosphere that leaves the audience on a high. You can see why so many folk come back year after year. Phil Cunningham and Co. have pushed down barriers and connected so many areas of music together in one evening. Here’s to next year.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.