Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Amy Sky
to play Bankhead Theater
By Lou Fancher
Music isn’t a cure-all, but when it comes to wounds of the heart, it’s a marvelous healer.
In a harmonic package that bundles frank conversations about grief and loss with melodic songs of hope and joy, “LIV ON: Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Amy Sky,” will splash down for one performance Feb. 12 at the Bankhead Theater. The bonus addition to the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center’s 2016-17 season represents sweet serendipity and the tour’s only Bay Area stop.
Executive Director Scott Kenison said the agent who represents ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro — whose three appearances at the Bankhead in 2007, 2012 and 2014 rapidly sold out — is the same agent working with Grammy, Emmy, Country Music and People’s Choice Award-winning Newton-John and her collaborative partners, singer-songwriter Amy Sky and Songwriter’s Hall of Fame member Beth Nielsen Chapman.
“The agent knows we pull a receptive audience, and the venue is intimate with great acoustics,” said Kenison. “They didn’t ask a lot of questions.”
Similarly, Newton-John in a phone interview said she didn’t question whether or not the messages the three musicians will bring to Livermore are pertinent. After a music career that placed her at the top of country and pop music charts and her appearance in “Grease,” the 1978 film adaptation of the Broadway musical that rocketed the Australian music star to greater prominence, Newton-John continued to produce chart-topping albums and songs. But in 1992, a breast cancer diagnosis derailed plans for a comeback-to-the-stage tour and placed her in an entirely new, all-too-common category: cancer patient. After treatment that included chemotherapy and surgery, Newton-John thought she might retire from the music industry.
“I went to Australia to recoup,” she said. “I ended up putting little songs on a cassette recorder.” The songs became a CD, “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey,” released in 1994 and the first album on which she wrote, recorded and co-produced all of the songs. “It was very personal and important to me. I realized that writing music was healing and a way of expressing my grief.”
Empowered and invigorated after finding health and hope in part through music, Newton-John’s focus sharpened. She began to produce more work that emphasized recovery and increased her involvement in animal and human health activism. Multiple fundraising events resulted in the opening in 2012 of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.
The center offers cancer treatment, education, research, training and, as of 2014, a dedicated wellness center. Other humanitarian organizations and activities she supports address children’s literacy, animal welfare, environmental protection and similar causes. Kenison said that the three women’s involvement not just in charitable causes but specifically in addressing issues relating to loss and cancer will interest Tri-Valley audiences.
“Grief is a universal experience — we’ve all lost someone or something — it’s a point of connection in any community,” he said.
Newton-John said that tragedy can also separate people, which is why she wants more people to talk about it and about healing. “People stop talking because they feel their friends get tired of it. I have a friend who lost a child and went back to work one week later and was told to get over it. I didn’t understand how people could lack compassion. It gave me impetus to start a conversation. When people share, they get opened up. Music gets it started and goes straight to the heart of people.”
The concert will feature primarily tracks from “LIV ON,” the trio’s new CD released in November. “We smashed our crazy schedules together and wrote for three weekends,” Newton-John said, about working on the songs. “We’d have a line or a thought, and then we’d write. It was just magical.”
The ideas came from everywhere, and many of the old and new songs were written collaboratively: Chapman wrote “Sand and Water” shortly after losing her husband. “No Stone in My Pocket” was written because of a friend who told Newton-John that her grief after losing her father was like dragging a brick around.
Newton-John said they’ve performed the show once, for Compassionate Friends’ annual conference in Arizona. “The response was warm. The show is simple, acoustic, intimate. I get to tell stories and sing with these girls I respect. It’s great fun.”
Immunotherapies in which the body’s cells are used to slow or combat the progress of cancer are being developed and have Newton-John feeling encouraged. Her greatest hope is to see cancer eradicated in her lifetime. In the meantime, Newton-John and her friends will sing and find healing and unity through music.