There’s no more than twenty in tonight, which is upsetting but strangely predictable – yeah, it’s the Monday after a particularly hearty weekend of revelry in Cardiff, but it’s a warm, summery evening ideally suited to the acoustic balm on offer. The Attic Folk team have used 10ft Tall’s curious charms well, candlelit tables creating a cosy feel and masking the modest turnout effectively. You’d actually want to come back, which isn’t something I’ve said about the place often.
Toby Hay hugs his guitar for dear life, face pressed to the frame and tousled Jack Rose hair draped across the strings. His most immediate pieces skip puppyishly in the footsteps of clear influences like Rose and John Fahey (whose ‘Poor Boy Long Way From Home’ he covers to appreciative nods from the ale-sipping enthusiasts). ‘Red Kite’, a Hay original, follows, bouncing nimbly on twanging Fahey-inspired rhythms and a sweet pealing melody, while elsewhere a crackling, droning raga intro and playful Richard Bishop-style Eastern tones dovetail beautifully into a rousing take on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. So far, so accomplished. The most interesting pieces are those where he finds his own voice, though; balladic 12-string compositions that meander reflectively through the mid-Wales landscapes of his home. Highly promising, he might well look back at these early steps in a couple of years and think them a bit naïve. That’s a good thing.
There’s no better example of binding clear influences into an original voice than The Gentle Good, who continues, three albums in, to flit between styles and influences casually and entirely confidently. ‘Hiraeth’ opens with a reminder of the trad Welsh folk beauty he built a reputation on, but he scarcely revisits its forelock-tugging, respectful charms during forty minutes’ zigzagging across styles and nations. ‘Aubade’ is crystalline Renbourn / Jansch keening, a newly-minted instrumental grabs a handful of Welsh motifs and casts them in sparkling new light, while ‘Ocean is King’ is a pin-sharp rush of pure spring. From there he diverts with a Welsh-Chinese hybrid from Y Bardd Anfarwol, debuts a new original which gently subverts the ‘lonely maiden waits on the shore’ clichés beloved of songs he himself has covered, and finally wraps up with a stinging take of the lurching, seasick title track from Tethered To The Storm. He never drops a single complex stitch; practiced, assured and captivating in ways few if any can match, a laid back cousin of Gruff Rhys if you squint.
Within the cosy confines of an evening like this, something fairly radical occurs ten minutes into James Blackshaw’s set; he sings. Having stayed instrumental for his glorious set at From Now On in February, ‘Running Out Of Air’ from Summoning Suns debuts his voice to Cardiff ears, his vocals a little hesitant but warm and clean with shades of Neil Halstead or even Damon Gough and a pleasing hint of Jim O’Rourke’s off-kilter phrasing. His playing on the trio of vocal songs is more streamlined, clearer, with countryish slide guitar; you sense changes in his writing to accommodate lyrics which long-time dual perfomers like Gareth Bonello have long since merged into one natural style. Next to the transcendent sunburst wonder of ‘River of Heaven’ or ‘Transient Life In Twilight’, both a decade old but still blessed with a breath-catching beauty, these new songs may seem a little earthbound. They’re not; he’s just trying on a different set of stylistic structures. As with his writing for piano, for ensemble (the Fantomas album), or for improv duo (with Lubomir Melnyk), it’s just further evidence that Blackshaw, for all his abundant talents as a guitarist, has far more to him than your standard casual, self-effacing genre classics.
James Blackshaw photographed at From Now On festival by Joe Singh (www.snaprockandpop.co.uk)