Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook has been a regular touring feature of the Scottish music scene in December for fifteen years now – and there’s a CD out, too, just celebrating its fifth birthday. Under lockdown, no show was planned for this year but all the regular crew – that’s Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader, Kris Drever, Ian Carr, Kevin McGuire, John McCusker and the essential brass section, alongside ‘Mr. Accordeon’ Phil Cunningham himself – got together in a socially-distanced way earlier this year for a session with the aim of keeping the festive cheer alive. A live audience with whom to bounce off, with camaraderie and interaction to drive the musicians along, is sorely missed (and Aly and Phil’s appearance at our local hall was indeed the last gig I went to pre-lockdown) – but, in compensation, at least you don’t now have to be in Scotland to catch the shows.
From six hours of material, including traditional Christmas carols and religious hymns to their more modern secular and popular variants, they’ve pulled together two one-hour gigs – the first out last Saturday; the second this forthcoming Wednesday – and, at this point, you can watch the second from the comfort of your own living room (front row seat guaranteed, domestic animals permitting) and at the convenience of your own five minute bell for the princely sum of £15 (or £25 for both) – tickets available here. Once you’re in, you can watch either or both as many times as you like up until 27 December (when the mince pies are but a distant memory, the remains of the turkey is destined for curry and the freezer, and the mulled wine is alcoholic only by the faintest of associations).
There’s a songsheet out for you to sing along at home – and you can also practise your Gàidhlig since ‘Silent Night’ is sung in Gàidhlig – as well as a few video teasers and there is also the promise of a new CD, signed copies of which are now available on pre-order. As a wee taster: here is Silent Night from the 2015 album, sung in Gàidhlig, of course:
My second pick this week is Oxford’s Abi Farrell, whose ‘I Will See You Through’ has been out for download/streaming since 23 November ahead of a vinyl release ‘landing early in 2021’. Abi is brand new but solidly in the tradition of soulful voices, while citing influences as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Eva Cassidy and Chaka Khan, and released her debut EP in November 2019. This track was written under lockdown following a chance meeting immediately prior with Nick Corbin, a more established songwriter who’s worked with soul giant producer/remixer/arranger Lack of Afro among others.
‘I Will See You Through’ is a modern Northern Soul mid-tempo classic – think that skipping drum fill (that I am reliably informed is a ‘six-stroke roll (RllrrL) for the sextuplet‘) from the star drummers of Motown’s Funk (or Soul) Brothers (Uriel Jones, I think – though indeed it could be either of Benny Benjamin or Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen); allied to plucked strings recalling the Pointer Sisters (‘Send My Baby Back’), a propulsive beat and psychedelic guitar chords. Layered above all this is Abi’s controlled, but pure and crystal clear, vocal and – inevitably and completely in-style – a lovelorn lyric with a gorgeously tuned middle eight linking back to a theme whose catchiness means that you’ll be humming it for days.
Here, at least, is the good side of streaming in that it does allow up-and-coming musicians to demonstrate that there is an audience for their work as well as to build a following: Abi’s debut EP has amassed 50,000 plays to date although ‘I Will See You Through’ currently needs a bit of help from you. Now to turn that into something which helps to pay the bills – you know what to do, dear reader! – and, in the meantime, it remains a priority task to #Fixstreaming. In addition, Abi has a bandcamp where you can pick up ‘I Will See You Through’ as well as her debut release – and don’t forget the physical product when it comes out, either direct from the artist or via your local record shop.
This is probably the last in the regular #NewMusicMondays posts for a while – though I will be trying to post more often on music in 2021. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of what is now eighteen posts going back to 24 August; and it’s certainly helped keep ‘The Back Room’ going during what has been a busy, and intense, period of work during which I’ve also been working on language editing four books at once (an edited collection on the integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the labour market, out soon at the European Trade Union Institute; a new volume in Christophe Solioz and Wolfgang Petritsch’s ‘Southeast European Integration Perspectives’ series; no. 2 of the 2020 volume of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe in which, uniquely, yours truly also has an article; and a further edited collection for the ETUI, this time on workers and organisation in the platform economy and on which work remains ongoing). And, as always, the end of the year anyway provides a good opportunity to reflect and consider before going afresh into what the New Year might bring.
Lockdown – the spark for this series looking at what musicians are doing to keep music and entertainment going in career-blocking circumstances – will be continuing for a while yet; and for many of us it’s been toughened. For all that this is necessary to keep people safe, the responsibility for having failed to do so thus far, as well as for the raised and then dashed hopes for a ‘normal’ Christmas, remains squarely at the door of this elitist, incompetent and eternally dithering government of clowns. Pictures of lorry queues on the M20, while there is crisis at home, will be this government’s ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vote them out, as soon as we can.
Pending that thought, in the meantime – merry Christmas and happy holidays: and here’s to a better 2021 for all of us, together.