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Robin & Steve

 

BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY

Guitar Player, September 1998

It takes nerve to play solo acoustic guitar. Gripping only a few pounds of ingeniously assembled wood and metal, you have to dazzle an audience's senses with your bare hands. On a flat-top, staying in tune means pushing and pulling strings within each voicing, and adding sustain means fretting your notes a few milliseconds longer. Physical stuff. In the tight-wire game of solo acoustic, there's no escaping the core issue: How's your touch? Your tone? Your time? Just how well CAN you play?

Masterfully, if you're Robin Bullock. His new Between Earth and Sky is a breathtaking collection of traditional Celtic, Appalachian, and Scottish Highland bagpipe tunes, Irish reels, Breton folk melodies, and finely crafted originals. In addition to acoustic 6- and 12-string guitar, Bullock plays cittern, mandolin, electric bass and fiddle. It's easy to overlook his brilliant technique, since it's always in service of the music.

On eight of the CD's fourteen tunes, Bullock tracks all the instruments. On other selections, he's backed by equally gifted players on whistle, flute, djembe (a West African drum), button accordion, soprano sax, alto flute, and bass clarinet. Dobro master Mike Auldridge makes a guest appearance on one cut, laying down ghostly lines that tug and tinkle against Bullock's chimey arpeggios.

Whether flying solo or soaring with others, Bullock has an extraordinary command of timbre and dynamics. From shimmering harmonics to densely woven strands of counterpoint, his every note rings clear. Part of this is due to the transparent, airy recording, but it's Bullock's knack for arranging that lets each instrument shine so brightly. You can hear that he has dedicated years to absorbing the lesson of traditional folk music: A poignant melody, not fancy fretwork, stands the test of time.

Bullock plays with superb intonation - no mean feat when overdubbing a cluster of fretted, stringed instruments - and his fat, pointed electric bass tone makes you wonder why more bassists don't flatpick. Best of all, his overdubs sound organic and dynamic, like a well-seasoned ensemble. A remarkable work from a deep player.

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