In a faithless world (in my own faithless world, anyway) one of the few things that can substitute for a religious experience is finding a place where sound can be transfigured. This could be as simple as a random encounter with a naturally-shaped space that has a whisper, or as calculated as deliberately finding somewhere in a newer concrete structure where the right note in a scale suddenly booms like amplified doo-wop. It might explain why there’s a primal pleasure about singing in the shower – that embrace of the feeling that you’re in the right location for the ritual of sound to run its course.
Toby Hay (the brother of Tomorrow We Sail’s Tim Hay) made full use of this feeling when recording this debut EP of acoustic guitar. It helped that Tim’s own stairwell, at home in Leeds, provided the ideal sound. One evening – while Tim, all ears, manned the console – Toby sat down on the stairs and recorded then and there. Still only 21, his guitar technique is already fully formed and his playing strikingly visual (it’s hardly surprising to find that he also works as a filmmaker). That sense of placement and location stretches further than his choice of where to sit down and hear the natural reverb, and into the fabric of his music.
The inspirations are immediately recognisable. A fingerstyle player, Toby’s music is firmly in the ornate British folk-baroque approach, continuing a line begun by Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy in the ’60s and continued, over the years, by players including Michael Hedges and Martin Simpson. The EP aligns Toby’s own compositions alongside his variations on and extrapolations of standards, to the point where only the familiarity of a tune separates them.
For Variations On O’Carolans’ Dream, Toby immerses himself in the world of Irish baroque harp music, reworked through the guitar. While here he’s following in the footsteps of the likes of Duck Baker, his performance is confident, revelling in the guitar sonorities which add spice to the transposition. His thumbwork in the bass is strong – especially in the second section, where he chops toothily into the bassline – and the riffling harp-like flourishes which he brings to his fingerwork offer something back to the original. By the third section, the baroque structures have melded seamlessly with an Indian-inflected pulsealong.
As you might have guessed from the title, And We’ll Take A Cup Of Kindness Yet is Toby’s extrapolation of Auld Lang Syne. In some respects it’s the most straightforward piece on the EP, travelling from a sleepy, breezy statement of the original melody before running away into double-time. From its start as a song of sitting down, drinking and remembering, it’s transmuted into a fast-flowing travelling piece, heavy on the double-stopping and the thumbing of bass notes, before slowing again into a classical inspired study which doesn’t so much recapitulate the original tune as revive it.
Of the three Hay originals, Platform 16 is another travelling song. Its intro bounces and rings out on high harmonics: as the music wheels onwards, Toby’s sliding, percussive attack on the notes as they’re made out is so sharp that it sounds like pickwork. Night Terror Blues is another demonstration of quiet excellence. Winding up out of hushed beginnings, it becomes a strong-stepping baroque blues. Stabbing in the treble, there’s a slithering in the bass range – like a slipping foot on the run.
The remaining original – Where The River’s All Rain And Roses – takes its title from Jack Kerouac. More explicitly, it comes from a dusktime description of swishing across the Mississippi river on the bridge at Port Allen, Louisiana in “a misty pinpoint darkness.” Kerouac’s original passage is an undulant swirl of description – a journey through foglight and dropping evening captured in smudged yellows and purples, in the swings of a sharply curving drive. Yet Toby’s own piece has none of the arresting jazz stimulus which one might expect from a Kerouac tribute. Nor does it try to recapture that American freeway motion; of driving through the astonishing scenery and through the liberty of the rolling roads into revelation.
Instead, Toby seems to be taking his cue not from the motion or the self-absorption, but from Kerouac’s descriptions of what he passes through en route – the textures of the mists, the way he hails the Mississippi as “a washed clod in the rainy night… a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees…” For once, the music hovers rather than drives. Over a billowing airblown shruti box drone (the EP’s lone overdub), Toby picks out an elegant Gymnopedie-via-Ralph Towner progression, its melody carried in the bass and midrange. Stepping back and forth, it maintains its chords via high, clipped double-stopping. When a new sequence emerges midway and, chord by chord, rides up to a sparse and ecstatic point of grace, it does so with the same pointillistic pacing. Droplets in the fog, light snagged in vapour, or moments of eternity seen through movement – whatever this brings to the mind, it captures a position in time and in space that’s mystifying. For a moment, just like that moment when the sound in the stairwell deepens to a subtle boom.
Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (the stairwell sessions)’
Toby Hay (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 13th December 2012
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