"I never saw this coming. Never in my wildest dreams." Phil Cunningham

​“I never saw this coming,” said Phil Cunningham, grinning from ear to ear. “Never in my wildest dreams.”
“This” being the fact that he was sitting onstage next to none other than Olivia Newton-John, about to guest on whistle for her encore with Beth Neilsen Chapman and Amy Sky, at the close of their sold-out LIV ON show last night. Back in 1978, when Grease catapulted Newton-John to global superstardom in the role of good-girl-turned-siren Sandy, the teenage Cunningham was a couple of years into his Silly Wizard career (and still very much of an age to appreciate the cut of Sandy’s jib) – at which point the idea of their musical worlds colliding would indeed have seems outlandish in the extreme. And yet, nearly 40 years later, here we were – with Cunningham looking like a man almost literally pinching himself.
Newton-John’s level of celebrity – a different echelon from what we’re used to at Celtic Connections – saw some especially hopelessly devoted fans hanging around her hotel, and a BBC session earlier in the day, desperate to score a photo or signature. One particularly determined worshipper even phoned her publicist masquerading as a Herald photographer, supposedly commissioned to take a full portrait shot. Despite name-dropping the journalist’s who’d previewed her Celtic appearance, for extra credibility, he wasn’t fooling anyone: they’ve dealt with his sort before.
Given how good Newton-John looks at 68, together with prevailing celebrity lifestyle trends, one imagines she’s all about the healthy eating, but word has it she was happily swapping recipes with one of our festival drivers ahead of last night’s show: we’d love to know what Glasgow delicacies she’ll be trying at home in Australia.
One of the tireless back-office team at the Holiday Inn Theatreland fell prey to another masquerade yesterday morning, when an apparently broad Glaswegian gentleman phoned to ask what was happening at the hotel with Celtic Connections (the first word pronounced with a soft ‘c’), as he’d heard that “all the top players” were going to be there. Our helpful colleague - although actually in charge of reservations – suggested he check out the House of Song, only to be asked if “Big Lenny”, “Henrik” or “King Kenny” were going to be there, at which point she recommended contacting the Concert Hall. The caller, it turned out, was Heart radio breakfast presenter Robin Galloway, doing his daily ‘8.10 Phone Tap’ prank, and the entire conversation had gone out live on air – all of which was taken in remarkably good part by the poor overworked soul on the receiving-end.
We also heard tell yesterday of an all-staff briefing, early this month, at another of the main hotels booked out by Celtic Connections for its artists. The assembled team were instructed firstly to clean out every available cupboard and storage space in the building, for visiting musicians to stash instruments and kit; and above all to be as pleasant and accommodating as humanly possible to every single person in the hotel – resident or not – as long as the festival lasts. All this being for the very good reason that during Celtic Connections, said hotel takes a whacking 65 percent of its annual profit over the bar. Gulp.
Early-bird delegates are already gathering for this year’s Showcase Scotland expo event, which officially kicks off tomorrow. Another heavyweight contingent of 180 music-industry professionals will be looking to take Scottish music home to countries as far afield as Uruguay, India, Ethiopia, Argentina and Kenya, not to mention the US, Canada and Australia, plus the length and breadth of Europe and the UK. Our 2017 international partners have also come a long way, bringing six outstanding acts from Brazil to showcase at the festival. They can maybe compare jet-lag experiences with the newest member of the Showcase Scotland production staff, a native Orcadian newly returned from an extended stay in Australia, where she’d been working as a dietician and massage therapist for major sports teams. While one can easily see the transferability of such skills to the coming epic weekend, apparently what clinched her getting the job was when she declared, “I love music, and I love getting my hands dirty.” Welcome to the team.
The 2017 series of Celtic Connections on Campus, hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University in association with Celtic Music Radio, has two more sessions to go, tomorrow and Friday. Taking place in the GCU Students’ Association Bistro, from 12.30-2.30, these informal concerts combine up-and-coming talent – tomorrow including Ceilidh MacLeod, Sam Begbie, Cameron Roxburgh and Gnoss – with the chance to grab some lunch.
Also on a higher-educational note, £5 student tickets are now available for three cracking festival shows at the O2ABC: the Balkanarama Party featuring Slobodan Trkulja & Balkanopolis with Tantz & Kuchke, this Friday (27th); Damien Dempsey & Hermitage Green (February 1st) and Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band with The Eskies (February 2nd). Just show your student ID at the Concert hall box office.
Round 2 of Folkytown 2017 takes place tonight from 10.30pm, so drop by the Flying Duck for tasty tunes from “the succulent Paddy Callaghan, the aromatic Ryan Murphy and the dreamy-creamy Pablo Lafuente.”