We are standing on top of a dam. On one side, looking down a long valley, millions of gallons of water are plunging over the dam wall. It is a breathtaking sight on such a glorious bright March afternoon. On the other side lays a vast expanse of water that is still as a millpond, the hillsides reflected clear and sharp in the hidden depths.
This is Claerwen dam and reservoir part of the amazing Elan Valley in Mid Wales. Beyond the water acres of moorland wander away into God knows where. This is the homeland of guitar player Toby Hay and Claerwen is one of his favourite places. Out here the silence is golden, the sky is vast and Ravens and Red Kites rule. Hay points to the horizon and recounts tales of days spent out there laying in the sun, skimming stones and being at peace. ‘Claerwen’ is the opening track on side two of The Gathering, Toby Hay’s new long playing record of instrumental guitar works that totally captures the spirit of this place.
The Gathering is an album of simplicity, elegance and beauty. Wandering in this empty landscape with Toby you get a sense of the atmosphere he has created on his record. He takes me deeper into the landscape explaining how the farmers join together to help each other gather in the sheep that roam the emptiness. They ride horses or quad bikes across the vast dangerous terrain to bring the animals home. ‘The Gathering’ is also the final track on the record. A fitting finale to a beautiful record. A symphony and prayer to the beautiful landscape and its inhabitants.
Sometimes accompanied by violin, cello and double bass Hay’s deft fretwork shimmers and sparkles like sunlight reflecting on the water then again flows and bubbles like a mountain stream in flood (‘The Fly Fisherman and the Trout’). There is nothing twee about these instrumental compositions though.
Thoughtfully put together each song has its own power of persuasion reflecting this man’s relationship with his world. One of the delights of listening to The Gathering is a tremendous feeling of space. Toby Hay has the great gift of making his compositions seem “unhurried”. A change of tempo here, a slight Celtic inflection there and lovely final passages that gently weave a magic spell as they fade (‘Starlings’).
We sit in silence on a wooden seat thoughtfully placed at a perfect viewpoint, we haven’t seen another human for hours. Red Kites dance in the air to a music beyond our ear and dusk approaches. “I love this place” he comments, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Later, the home log burner casting its warm relaxing spell, Toby shows me his new custom built Fylde 12 string guitar. Fittingly a Red Kite is inlaid on the fretboard. He starts to play and the air thickens and the moorlands and vast skies are present again. Bear, Toby’s faithful Collie, sits by my side and we enjoy the enchantment although I guess he has seen and heard it all before.
The Gathering is a stunning and evocative album that has the ability to help us come away from the world’s madness and find somewhere else to dwell if only for a while.
Words: Keefy H.