Phil Cunningham waxes rhapsodic over festival

By Laurel Munroe – The Cape Breton Post

Renowned Scottish musician, composer can’t wait to return to Cape Breton

Just how much fun did Phil Cunningham have at last year’s Celtic Colours festival?

“I had to go to the hospital for a smile-ectomy when I got home!” says the renowned Scottish accordion player and composer, a fan favourite who returns this year for several performances, including Friday’s Opening Gala at Centre 200.

It was the affable Cunningham’s first visit to Cape Breton – and he was smitten from the moment he set foot on the island.

“It was exciting enough to be in Cape Breton . . . then to be part of Celtic Colours . . . just how much excitement can a man stand? I made so many new friends and renewed so many old friendships – and it was great to see so many Cape Breton musicians on their own turf,” he says. “I suddenly remembered that music was supposed to be fun and everyone at the festival made sure I was able to get into that groove.”

Cunningham, a native of Edinburgh, was a member of the legendary band Silly Wizard from 1976 to 1983. He went on to amass a large body of work in film, theatre and radio and has produced albums for supergroups Altan and Wolfstone, among others. His orchestral piece, Ceilidh, had its world premiere with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra last year – and earlier this year, he was designated a Member of the British Empire ‘for services to Scottish traditional music.’

Cunningham says he was so “musically rejuvenated” by Celtic Colours last year, he wrote about a dozen pieces of music while he was here.

“The tune that was ultimately named The Colours of Cape Breton was a special tune for me,” he explains. “I composed it down at St. Ann’s early one morning. I have never seen such glorious colours as I witnessed that morning.

(Festival manager) Joella Foulds helped me name the piece. I suppose I tried to convey the beauty of my surroundings and the general good feeling of the moment.”

Cunningham recently had The Colours of Cape Breton orchestrated and will be playing that version, as well as a shorter edition, at various times during this year’s festival.

One of the shows Cunningham is most looking forward to is Outside the Box, Sunday at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, where he will share the stage with Sharon Shannon and Joe Derrane.

It will mark the first time the three world-renowned accordion players will appear together on the same bill.

“Sharon and I are old pals and we have had a few tunes together over the years – and I believe Joe and I played together in the Catskill Mountains a few years ago,” he says. “I am obviously really looking forward to seeing them again. The differences in styles will be very evident on the night. I expect there will be a lot of fun and a wide range of playing styles . . . not to mention some off-the-cuff collaborations.”

Cunningham will be accompanied this year by Duncan Chisholm (of Wolfstone and Blazing Fiddles fame) on fiddle and Malcolm Stitt (Deaf Shepherd, The Boys of the Lough) on guitar.

“I can’t wait to get there,” he says. “It’s such a great event from an artist’s point of view – no egos to contend with, just honest-to-God good fun with music at the heart of it. I really believe that if the artists are in that frame of mind, it can’t help but transmit itself to the audience and the end result is one big, happy festival.”

Phil Cunningham will perform five shows during this year’s Celtic Colours festival:
Friday: Gala Opening Concert, Centre 200, Sydney
Saturday: Pastoral Airs, St. Matthew’s Church, Inverness
Sunday: Outside The Box, Savoy Theatre, Glace Bay
Thursday, Oct. 17: All About Home, Holy Redeemer Church, Whitney Pier
Saturday, Oct. 19: World’s Biggest Square Dance, Victoria Highland
Civic Centre, Baddeck

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