Think of Scotland and musical shindigs over the festive season and it’s long been Hogmanay that’s immediately sprung to mind.
But that’s all changed in recent years thanks to acclaimed folk star Phil Cunningham and his own band of merry minstrels.
The Edinburgh-born multi-instrumentalist has taken his all-star Christmas Songbook out on the road virtually every December since around 2006 – and it’s fair to say it’s become something of a national institution.
Phil’s established line-up of collaborators includes the likes of ex-Fairground Attraction frontwoman Eddi Reader, Capercaillie singer Karen Matheson, fiddle maestro John McCusker and Orkney troubadour Kris Drever, along with a five-strong military brass ensemble.
After their tour was virtually wiped out due to Covid in 2021, Cunningham and co made a triumphant touring return last year – and they’re back at a string of familiar venues from Thursday, including Perth Concert Hall.
‘It’s heaven when the girls start singing’
Phil, 63, says he doesn’t have to convince any of his all-Scottish troupe to take part.
“It’s just a given,” he insists.
“We all look forward to it, and to the couple of days’ rehearsal beforehand. There’s sausage rolls, steak pies and loads of singing.
“We used to rehearse in my living room and I once caught the postie standing outside listening to it! It’s like a wee heaven when the girls start singing – it’s brilliant.
“We think of it as our staff Christmas party or dance. It’s kind of grown a bit, too, and now we’ve got seven or eight venues that we’re doing.
“When it started out 17 years ago it was only supposed to be one and it’s grown into a thing that a lot of people love to come to, to start their Christmas. It makes them feel like it’s time to get on with the festivities properly.”
Boney M song sounded ‘bloody awful’
Phil, who’s best known for his musical partnership with Shetland fiddle legend Aly Bain, says working out new arrangements of often centuries-old carols or hymns is one of the singalong’s biggest joys – although the set also has room for non-festive classics that have what he describes as “a similar sentiment”.
“People come to hear Christmas songs and finding the right new songs ahead of the tour that fit the requirement is really tricky,” the bandleader explains.
“We had a laugh the other day when Eddi sent me a song that wasn’t about Christmas, but she said it’s got the word ‘snow’ in it!
“If you’re going to change it a little bit, the most difficult thing is choosing what not to sing. You have to think about what the audience want to hear – it’s for them.
“We did a Boney M song once and it just wasn’t for us. It sounded alright in rehearsal and we all relied on that thing that happens when you get on stage – a bit of adrenalin giving it some more – but it was just bloody awful!
“It sounded like seven folk that had just met on the street. But you have to give it a go now and again.”
Songbook remembers Phil’s brother Johnny
The Songbook was born out of an idea that Phil and his late musician brother Johnny had for an annual festive show, but which fell by the wayside following his sibling’s passing in December 2003, aged just 46.
It later took off after a supposedly one-off performance put on at Edinburgh Castle in tribute to Johnny proved a big hit – and he’s stuck by his successful formula ever since.
“You always have to put a little twist on every song to validate who we all are in terms of musicians,” Phil explains.
“It’s not just a Christmas carol concert, it’s one that’s played by traditional musicians. So you add a bit of traditional style into everything.”
It may be utterly Scottish in nature and adored for it, but Phil reckons his creation could travel far and wide.
“We thought about taking it down to the Sage in Gateshead, but it’s a time constraint more than anything,” he says.
“Because we’re all such good pals, though, anything could happen. It doesn’t have to be based in Scotland because the music is such that it could go anywhere.
“Also, it’s a real two-way gig – and we can see that we’re giving joy to people. At the end of the day, I suppose that’s what this job is all about.”
Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook comes to Perth Concert Hall on December 20. Tickets can be purchased from the concert hall’s website.