Photos by Keri Tredegar – @IntoMusicSWales
The attic in Cardiff’s Ten Feet Tall is such a perfect venue for his kind of evening, what with it’s handful of tables moodily lit with candles in liquor bottles before an elevated stage,I was surprised to discover that this was only the second folk evening they’d held there. With such a wonderfully intimate vibe to the place it’s the perfect setting up for an audience to sit in quiet contemplation and sink into some soothing music.
First to take advantage of the setting is Toby Hay. It’s a brave, or perhaps even unwise, move for him to start a set by covering an artist who’s influence hangs heavily over his own work but Hay does so straight off the bat with a rendition of John Fahey’s Poor Boy Long Way From Home. In introducing it he reasons that with 3 guitarists of such calibre on display he could, “feel his spirit in the air.” When a huge squeal of feedback mars the opening few seconds you can’t help but wonder if his spirit wasn’t best pleased. To his credit Hay smiled through it and put in a fine, spirit appeasing rendition before moving into his own set of fingerpicked acoustic folk on 6 and 12 string guitar. His style is heavily informed by Fahey along fellow past masters of the American Primitive style like Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho. Much like those men nature seems to be his primary inspiration – he introduces his songs as being about a brook in his home village, starlings, herding sheep and a dream about trout fishing. I imagine living in the Welsh countryside is the perfect place for an acoustic folk songsmith to write – you rarely hear a raga about pedestrianized zones, do you? It’s an impressive display of craft from the young Hay which has the crowd sat mesmerized. He’s working in some fairly large shadows and it’ll be interesting to see how he sounds should he move out of them. Which I’m sure he will – Welsh Primitive has quite the ring to it.
Hay is quickly followed by another Welsh artist in Gareth Bonello, aka The Gentle Good. Bonello works with more traditional Welsh folk influences, singing versions of old ballads and shanties about young women waiting on the shore for their loves to return, as well as writing his own updated versions where the young woman gets bored waiting and decides the boy isn’t worth it. He has an excellent stage patter between songs, which is invaluable to an Englishman like me who’d have no clue what he’s singing about otherwise. Not that it would matter – his mellifluous voice and expert picking would sound full of grace even if he was singing about the contents of his fridge. He sings one song from his most recent album which has quite the story to it – a series of songs in the Welsh language about an 8th century Chinese poet, recorded in China with local musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments. And they say globalisation is a bad thing. With a couple of complex instrumental numbers in between he plays folk as it should be – steeped in heritage but with a playful knack for bringing things up to date and a sense of adventure in it’s heart.
Finally Scotland’s James Blackshaw sees things out. Blackshaw could perhaps do with taking a lesson or two crowd interaction from the Gentle Good – whilst switching between his various tunings the audience is left to it’s own devices for slightly uncomfortably long periods. He does chat now and again – explaining the sci-fi influence behind the title of a couple tracks from his album Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death with which he opens his set. He looks uncomfortable though, likely because he has moved out of his comfort zone – his most recent album Summoning Suns sees him singing for the first time. On record he’s backed with lovingly arranged strings and female backing vocals – this is, he tells us, only the fourth time he’s played the ‘singy songs’ on his own. But whilst he looks tentative he needn’t worry – the songs are strong enough to stand on their own and he has a fine voice, strangely reminiscent of the late Nick Talbot, aka Gravenhurst. Perhaps Talbot is brought to mind due to the similarly macabre lyrical fascinations they share as well as the similar timbre.
Either way the three songs he plays tonight all showcase this previously hidden talent of his brilliantly. When I first heard Blackshaw would be singing I was worried it might be a sign he’d ran out of ideas, but that’s clearly not the case – it’s heartening to see here that he’s still challenging himself, willing to try something different – just like he did in doing a live soundtrack to the film Fantomas last year. He looks a little more comfortable playing the instrumental songs he’s more famous for but there are signs that he’s onto something and that this won’t be a temporary diversion in his career. The tentativeness he showed may have meant this wasn’t the best show he’s ever put on but it should at least affirm to everyone, not least to Blackshaw himself, that he knows what he’s doing.