The Hawksworth Grove Sessions (2018) marked the first studio collaboration between Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay, their weeks of touring as a duo spilling over into an exquisite set of fingerstyle instrumentals loosely informed by community, tradition and place. The follow-up was initially earmarked for 2020, but, like almost everything else, was thwarted by the pandemic.
Both men subsequently threw themselves into other projects. Sheffield’s Ghedi expanded his reach with In The Furrows Of Common Place, fronting a four-piece band and supplementing his agile guitar-playing with vocals that often served as an allusive commentary on the travails of modern-day Britain.
In the Welsh market town of Rhayader, 170-odd miles to the south-west, Hay got busy with a couple of solo works, drawing shade and sustenance from the rolling seasons and the power of the natural landscape around him. He made a lot of music during lockdown, yet craved collaboration. Electric and acoustic bassist Aidan Thorne dropped by in the summer of 2021 to conspire on After The Pause, due soon on Hay’s own Cambrian label. But it wasn’t until early last year that he and Ghedi finally managed to reconnect.
Over the course of three days at Giant Wafer Studios in mid-Wales, Ghedi and Hay (the former on six-string; the latter on 12-string) recorded together, spontaneously, with no edits or overdubs. The upshot is a fabulously alive, organic work brimming with vigour and verve. Each player is a virtuoso, though pliable and sensitive enough to weave in and around the other’s space, whorls of notes encircling rolling motifs, dispersing and returning at will.
“Seasoned By The Storm” feels suitably elemental, a nimble guitar figure buffeted by repeated strikes of the bass strings, like waves lashing rock. A steady drone keeps the song moored to its centre, before loosening its grip and rushing toward an urgent finale, Ghedi and Hay finally locked in hydrous rhythm. The same pressing sense of discovery drives “Skeleton Dance”. Devised entirely on the spot, it rings with an almost savage physicality, channelling what Hay refers to as a “slightly dark, chaotic energy”.
Other songs appear to be more considered. “Moss Flower” is roomier, pastoral in tone, a little softer too, at least to begin with. Its light melody eventually grows legs, picks up apace and becomes deeply intense. Similarly, the contemplative “Bridget Cruise 3rd Air” (originally by Irishman Turlough O’Carolan, a blind 17th-century Celtic harp player) is a gorgeous succession of circular flurries that rise and subside like leaves in a current. It’s one of two covers here, the other being Welsh lullaby “Suo Gân”. Dating back over 200 years, it’s a meditative, graceful piece, Ghedi and Hay feeling their way through it in a way that suggests an intimate understanding of the source material, while, in parts, bringing to mind the mournful drift of Marijohn Wilkin’s “Long Black Veil”.
This instinctive ability to locate the emotional heart of these compositions is a constant throughout. The softly cascading, raga-like “Swale Song” salutes the majesty of the fast flowing North Yorkshire river of its title, plus attendant valleys and waterfalls. But it can also be taken as a bitter protest against neglect and abject corporate failure, arriving at a time when Britain’s rivers and waterways are routinely used as handy sewage dumps.
Hay wrote “With The Morning Hills Behind You” for his late grandmother. It’s a thoughtful, intuitive piece, one that begins like a quiet study in grief, but then moves somewhere altogether more celebratory and joyful, a life measured in unchained chords and shifting cadence. The closing “Gylfinir” is another song for a departed soul lost during the pandemic. Written in tribute to mutual friend Keith How – artist, writer, musician, bookshop owner, vinyl enthusiast and an unstinting champion of both men (he appears in the video to Ghedi’s “Beneath The Willow”) – it takes time to open out, the pair guarded at first, allowing notes to hang in the stillness. Finally it blossoms into vividly articulate colours and transforms itself into a lustrous kind of daleside reel, as if acknowledging a kindred spirit. Given the context, the music is both moving and intoxicating.
It seems entirely fitting that this album arrives via Topic, the great bastion of homegrown folk music that’s housed everyone from Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy and The Watersons to Nic Jones, June Tabor and Martin Simpson. And nor are these two young guitarists unduly flattered by such company. Rather, Jim Ghedi & Toby Hay feels like a kinetic part of a growing continuum.