For an album subtitled ‘A Celtic Christmas’ it’s ironic that I am writing this review at Summer Solstice, 21st June. I don’t think I had realised before researching this album how different Christmas is on the two sides of the Atlantic, and indeed elsewhere around the world. In the U.K., it is perceived as a celebration (in the eyes of the Church) in the Americas it is a holiday, although we both have the same theme. The Winter Solstice (December 21st), the beginning of the sun’s return, was celebrated for many centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ as a pagan winter festival. The Church devised Christmas as we know it to encompass or replace sun worshipping. It does not really matter that much, but at the time of Christmas with the warmth expressed with the feeling of goodwill you get when singing Christmas carols is very real — wherever you are.
Maybe it’s for this reason that the album has almost no vocals — just the tunes for 15 of the 16 tracks. It is only on the last track that Amy White sings ‘Ave Maria’. I came to realise after listening to the CD a few times, this is the charm of the album. The tunes and arrangements are pleasant on the ear and they come as a relief from the diddle-diddley Celtic music we get to hear so much of these days, often played by virtuoso musicians at breakneck tempos; it is good to get back to the ‘melody’ of the tune now and again.
Leading the musicians here is Robin Bullock, on 6 & 12-string guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, and bass guitar. Originally from Washington, DC, he now lives in Tripleval near Paris. Robin is prolific composer and has toured on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes solo and often with other musicians. Annually he joins forces with Al Petteway and Amy White for their winter celebration concert tour. Al Petteway plays guitar, bouzouki, and percussion. He has been a guest on over 60 recordings, and his solo recordings and instructional videotapes have gained him international recognition. Completing the trio is Amy White on mandolin, piano, harp, guitar, whistle, percussion and vocals. She is the wife of Al Petteway and now performs exclusively with her husband.
With pedigrees like this you would expect to hear something good, and you will — make no mistake about it. The musicianship is excellent. I was fascinated by the first track, ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Wedding Day’ a traditional Cornish carol dated 1833, as a variation of the tune is also used for the song ‘Juniper Gentle and Rosemary’. The tune ‘Greensleeves’ is next, a song widely speculated to have been written by Henry VIII, but in truth no one knows for sure. On the next couple of tracks are the tunes to carols — ‘The First Noel / Good King Wenceslas’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, ‘O Come all Ye Faithful / Angels We Have Heard On High’, ‘Kings of Orient’, all need no introduction but are played beautifully. At track 7 the pairing of ‘Christmas is Here’ & ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, I thought was particularly good and every guitarist will appreciate.
Halfway through the album it takes in a song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the ‘Gloucester Wassail’ complimented by a tune written by Amy White called ‘Winterlude’. Title track is next, ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ — American readers will instantly recognise this one from Dr. Edmund H. Sears and Richard Storrs Willis in 1850. Following ‘The Coventry Carol / Patapan’ comes one of the cleverest arrangements on the album for my money. It’s the ‘Gower Wassail’ paired with ‘The Boys of Ballisodare’, an Irish slip jig. A tune written and played by Amy White on the harp called ‘St Clair’s First Snow’ leads to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light’. A nice prelude for ‘Branches’ written and played superbly by Al Petteway and Amy White. An album like this simply has to have ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, and following the principle that less is more, this is a solo played by Robin on guitar.
At the time of writing this review there are only about 182 shopping days to go before Christmas, so what I have told you might be useful when planning your list of presents. This album would obviously make a nice Christmas present for anyone. Good background music at dinner party or in a supermarket — certainly. In truth the music can be enjoyed at any time of the year, as witnessed by your intrepid scribe sitting in his deck chair with his headphones on in the garden enjoying the sun, writing this review. Why wait until it is freezing cold to enjoy the music?