phil cunningham

LIVE: Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook – Queens Hall, Edinburgh 22/12/2023

Phil Cunningham‘s Christmas Songbook has become a bit of an institution in Scotland. Yes, I was there last year, but let me assure you that it is not simply a rehash of last year. We have the fantastic line-up once again of (deep breath): Karen Matheson MBE (vocals); Kris Drever (guitar, vocals and mandolin); Eddi Reader MBE (vocals, occasional guitar and percussion); John McCusker (fiddle); Kevin McGuire (double bass) and Ian Carr (guitar). Phil Cunningham leads proceedings, mostly switching between piano and accordion, and telling jokes (interestingly, the lady on the merch stall beforehand told me, unprompted, that he had some new jokes for this year).

Reportedly last night, Aly Bain, fiddler extraordinaire and Cunningham’s long-time (forty years) partner-in-crime made an appearance. While that doesn’t happen tonight, it truly doesn’t matter. There’s an audience who don’t need to be won over, with an age span of…easily seventy years, and they refer to the Queens Hall (one of Edinburgh’s best venues, IMHO) as the spiritual home of the Christmas songbook (next year they’re doing three dates here).

Over two fine sets we get an array of carols – Matheson and Reader compliment each other well on ‘Silent Night‘ in Gaelic (at least, I’m assuming, it’s very hard to make notes in a language you don’t know), as well as the likes of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen‘ and ‘Away In A Manger.‘ Yet what’s encouraging is that there’s no snobbery here – while folk has its purists as uptight as those of the Northern Soul and Indie scenes, what matters to Cunningham and co is that something is a good song, which opens us up to all manner of discussion in another place about who becomes the custodian of a song and when (I had an interesting chat with Miles Hunt of the Wonder Stuff about this once). Thus we also get ‘Merry Christmas Everyone‘ – known to most of us in Shakin’ Stevens‘ version, but now transformed (it may interest some of you to know it feels refreshingly less cheesy without that saxophone break).

Perhaps most moving is their take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The audience are directed to join in with the ‘war is over, if you want it‘ refrain and even typing this review up, my eyes mist as I think about what it was like to be part of the audience singing that…


But it’s a genuinely uplifting evening that shows you can tug at the heartstrings and – crucially – avoid the twee, like the shops in the Scottish capital that blare out the equivalent of tartan tat. ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas‘ is in the right hands here, thankfully.

Tickets are already on sale for next year. If you’re lucky enough to live near a venue, book your tickets now. Even if you think folk music isn’t your bag, it’s time you opened your ears to the boundary-transcending work of Cunningham and co.

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.