Robin Bullock, Al
Petteway & Amy White,
A Midnight Clear
(Dorian, 2002)

Sooner or later almost every musician gets the urge to do a Christmas album with often varying results, but we can all share glad tidings that these three superbly talented players joined forces to record A Midnight Clear. This disc is subtitled "A Celtic Christmas" and although these artists are all well experienced in the Celtic tradition, this project avoids the stereotypical Celtic sound. The material here is exquisitely chosen, beautifully arranged for mostly acoustic traditional instruments, well played, expertly recorded and brilliantly produced resulting in a Christmas disc of the highest order.

The CD booklet does a good job with all the vital information including a nicely written history of each tune. Robin Bullock performs as a solo artist, while Al Petteway and Amy White work as a duo (they are married to each other, too). The preface to the booklet explains that the three are long-time friends who admired each other's work and eventually began performing holiday concerts together. For this project, they decided to "pool our recordings of seasonal repertoire on a communal album. In this unusual format, a sequence evolved in which our tracks alternated, resulting in a musical conversation beyond what any of us had imagined individually." The song selections represent a good mix of mostly familiar tunes with a few not so familiar traditional carols.

The disc starts off in fine fashion with one of the less familiar choices, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," which the notes explain is a traditional Cornish carol, played by Robin on bouzoukis, 12-string guitar and bass. The performance and arrangement are perfect and the recording quality of the acoustic instruments is exceptional. Al & Amy follow with "Greensleeves," always a good Christmas mood-setter that here sounds just gorgeous on acoustic guitar and mandolin.

Robin's next selection is "The First Noel/Good King Wenceslas" with a terrific arrangement of guitar, mandolin and bouzouki, with lots of really interesting history provided in the notes. Al & Amy follow with "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," with an inventive arrangement that nicely stays true to the familiar melody, and no, it's not a misprint, it's "God rest you" and not "ye." The notes go deeper to explain "the lyrics should read 'God rest you merry, gentlemen' -- imploring the gentlemen to rest easy and not to worry or fear. The comma is often mistakenly placed after the word 'you,' implying that merry gentlemen are being asked to rest." A fine point perhaps, but it is indicative of the care and detail that characterizes this disc. Other highlights include Robin's take on "O Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard on High" and "The Coventry Carol/Patapan," on which Al & Amy style a world music arrangement sounding somewhat like Loreena McKennitt.

The delightful back and forth continues on for a full 16 tracks, showcasing some of the best sounding, best arranged and best recorded acoustic music I've heard in many a day. The album is mostly instrumental until Al & Amy have the last word with "Ave Maria," which features a lovely vocal by Amy, accompanied by Al on guitar. Great Christmas records have an amazing capacity to add to the enjoyment of the holidays and this is one disc to be savored. I already see this disc commanding a priority spot in my stack of essential Christmas listening.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 6 September 2003

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