Toby Hay: The Gathering
Cambrian Records

As fine a title as The Gathering is for this preternaturally poised debut album from Welsh folk guitarist Toby Hay, an even better one might have been The Conjuring, considering how much its tracks “open landscapes in the mind's eye,” to borrow a phrase from Robert MacFarlane, the award-winning author who co-wrote with Hay individual track notes for the release. Though he's an exceptional guitarist, the eight pieces aren't fingerpicking vehicles designed to celebrate virtuosic command; instead, they show him to be a natural storyteller who uses his gifts as a songwriter and instrumentalist to bring these tales to vivid life. Augmenting Hay's guitars (six- and twelve-string) and harmonium with contributions from Angela Chan (violin, viola, cello), Rob Bromley (violin), and Peter Scott (double bass), The Gathering casts an affectionate eye upon the beauty of the Welsh landscape both past and present.

Though each song tells a unique story, they're unified by Hay's artistic sensibility, songwriting style, and arrangements, and in each case the music's evocative potential is strengthened when coupled with Hay and MacFarlane's notes. The album's rustic aura is established early when “Mayfair at Rhayader 1927,” inspired by archive footage of the Rhayader Mayfair, weds the jangle of Hay's picking to keening strings. The breezy “The Fly Fisherman and the Trout,” written in the wake of a recurring dream about fishing along a stretch of the River Marteg, a locale Hay's known since childhood, sees the guitarist playing alone, doling out Eastern-inflected lines, and captivating the listener with the music's joyous spirit. Also performed solo is “Black Brook,” which, played on an old arch-top guitar from the 1930s, resonates with a natural grace appropriate to a song about a local stream that flows into the Marteg, the Wye, and eventually the sea.

The title of “A Thief's Tale” refers to a sheep that, having escaped the round-up, has taken off and in the process stolen a bit of extra time before the inevitable arrives, and Hay's jaunty music effectively renders the sheep's fleeting taste of freedom into instrumental form. Yet perhaps the best example of the story-like character of the material is “Sketches of a Roman Fort.” In this case, real-life experience is structurally replicated in musical terms: the ruminative opening and closing sections allude to the singing of a skylark, which was particularly vivid on the day the tune was written; for the dramatic, strings-laden central section, Hays drew for inspiration from the site of a Roman fort situated near his home, which prompted musings upon what early Roman soldiers might have been doing and thinking during their tenure at the fort.

I don't picture Hay as some Thoreau-like figure who's rejected the modern world for the pastoral shelter of the countryside; I would wager, however, that he's never happier than when he's hiking through the Welsh fields, inhaling its invigorating air, listening to the birds, and reflecting on the land's history. Time-worn and wistful for days long past, Hay's music overflows with heart and soul, and though wholly born from personal experience, exudes a humanity that makes it universally relatable. How heartening it is to be reminded that there's still room in this world for music of such genuine character.

March 2017