Review: Phil Cunningham’s Chirstmas Songbook - City Halls, Glasgow

FIRST staged seven years ago in Edinburgh, as a Scottish folk alternative to the usual festive concert formats, accordionist and broadcaster Phil Cunningham’s seasonal ceilidh with a few good pals – singers Eddi Reader and Karen Matheson, singer/guitarist Kris Drever, fiddler John McCusker, guitarist Ian Carr and double bassist Kevin McGuire – performing a selection of sacred and secular Christmas songs, has clearly carved out its own popular niche.

So much so that this year has seen the show extended to a short Scottish tour, which finishes up back in Edinburgh tonight.

With a brass quintet periodically adding sonorous, lambent embellishment, the material ranged from a brilliantly jazzy, sassy Santa Claus is Coming to Town, flamboyantly led by Reader and rounded off with a few rousing reels, to Matheson’s magical Gaelic version of Silent Night, suffused with tenderness and wonderment; from Drever’s nifty jig-time setting of The Holly and the Ivy to a mass rendition of the joyful Yorkshire carol Sweet Bells.

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Voices don’t come much more angelic that Reader’s and Matheson’s, whether individually or in harmony, and the resonant warmth of Drever’s singing likewise matched both the mood and the music. Instrumentally, too, all the featured players aren’t only among the very best in the business, but have worked together innumerable times before, offsetting the familiarity of the songs with richly appointed and freshly inventive arrangements, or alternatively stripping things back to exquisite, spartan delicacy.

Plenty of convivial banter onstage and a spot of communal carol-singing for the audience completed a real Christmas treat.

RATING: ****