Phil Rosenthal & Friends,
A Folk Song Christmas
(American Melody, 2001)

A Folk Song Christmas presents a set of 16 traditional Christmas carols ranging from lively to mellow, all performed in a traditional folk style by Phil Rosenthal and an ensemble of first-rate players and singers.

Rosenthal, previously guitarist and singer with the folk/bluegrass group The Seldom Scene, nowadays runs the American Melody label with his wife Beth Sommers. The Sommers-Rosenthal Family Band, which consists of Phil, Beth, their children Daniel and Naomi, and dobro player Stacy Phillips, all perform here, along with seven other talented musicians. Phil also produced and recorded this project, with recording quality that allows the acoustic guitars and other instruments to sound their best. The well-done liner notes not only indicate who played what, but also provide some interesting historical and background information on each song.

The songs are mostly old favorites like "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger," with a few lesser known but equally traditional tunes. You might be familiar with Bruce Cockburn's version of "Mary Had a Baby" from his Christmas disc; Phil's mellow performance here compares favorably. The instrumentation throughout the disc is rife with acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, dulcimers, banjos, dobros and flutes, with bass, percussion and some very nice trumpet and flugelhorn providing seasoning. The end result is a totally unpretentious, down-home-friendly recording.

"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is given a very mellow guitar and bass treatment, with a three-voice combination that sounds like an understated nod to Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas version. "Good King Wenceslas" features nice rhythm and bass lines and pleasing vocals by Linda Schrade, with Daniel on trumpet. "Silent Night" is performed as an instrumental, with a beautiful combination of flute, flugelhorn and guitar. Debi Smith offers up a dulcimer version of "Go Tell It On the Mountain." A banjo led "Jingle Bells" and the hoedown style "Breakin' Up Christmas" sound like Christmas down on the farm (yee-ha!), while "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is performed as a perfectly straightforward reference version.

Listening to A Folk Song Christmas, it's easy to imagine a warm and cozy cottage with a snowstorm raging outside, good friends, food and drink, and a traditional folk song circle in front of a roaring fire, with the participants all taking turns doing songs with various combinations of players and singers. If you enjoy folk and Christmas music, you can't go wrong with this disc.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 21 December 2002

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