ALMOST 40 years after the role that catapulted her to superstardom, as Sandy in Grease, Olivia Newton-John’s unlikely presence at Celtic Connections was primarily explained by the fact that her current acoustic project, LIV ON, also features US singer-songwriter and festival regular Beth Neilsen Chapman. Together with Canada’s Amy Sky, they originally collaborated on an album, released last year, pooling their shared experience of loss and survival in songs charting the journey from grief to hope. Besides Chapman’s involvement, though, there is, after all, nothing more traditionally Celtic than singing about tragedy and heartbreak - and regardless of pretext, Newton-John walked on to a heroine’s welcome.
LIV ON: Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman & Amy Sky/John McCusker Band ****
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
A fair bit of the material was predictably sugary, sometimes to the point of saccharine, complete with lyrics, rhymes and melodic progressions you could see coming a mile off: while the sentiments throughout were unimpeachably sincere, their expression at worst was crashingly, cloyingly platitudinous. Chapman’s superior songcraft significantly upped the average, however, while beautifully configured, inventively varied vocal arrangements, sparsely backed with guitar, piano and bass – or often a cappella – were an unexpected treat.
Also contributing above and beyond was an outstanding first-half performance from the John McCusker Band, featuring the Bellshill-born fiddler with his crack team of accordionist Andy Cutting, Innes White on guitar/mandolin, and Toby Shaer on flute, whistles and fiddle. Melodiously lush, radiantly arrayed instrumentals, from brilliantly headlong reels to exquisitely poised slow airs, alternated with captivating turns from guest singers Heidi Talbot and Adam Holmes, whose contrasting yet complementary voices further enriched a joyously rewarding set.