The death of her older sister from brain cancer in 2013 was the starting point for Olivia Newton-John’s new album Liv On, the latest chapter in an acting and musical career that spans five decades. A collaboration with Canadian singer Amy Sky and Nashville veteran Beth Nielsen Chapman, Liv On tackles challenging topics – coping with the loss of a loved one, the importance of end-of-life-care and the often unpredictable process of healing – with a bracing directness. In this instance, grief is the word.
Flanked by Sky and Chapman at the Celtic Connections folk festival in only their second live concert together, Newton-John expertly channels her palpable film-star charisma to create an atmosphere where such emotional and potentially distressing issues can become something cathartic and even celebratory. A musical sparseness – the trio’s harmonised voices are variously accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a piano – also helps safeguard against a descent into schmaltz.
All three are consummate performers in their own right. Sky put Maya Angelou’s inspirational Phenomenal Woman to music more than a decade before Beyoncé incorporated it into her stage shows, and she delivers a heartfelt rendition here. Chapman appealingly revisits This Kiss, the curveball country-pop smash she wrote for Faith Hill. But perhaps the warmest response is for Newton-John’s 1974 hit I Honestly Love You. After a slightly incongruous Pharrell cover, Newton-John welcomes Phil Cunningham, a Celtic Connections fixture, to the stage to add some plaintive whistle to their finale, Immortality. Despite the heartbreaking subject matter, Cunningham looks delighted to be the crowd’s Danny Zuko proxy.
- At Union Chapel, London, on 26 January. Box office: 020-7226 1686.