Athens Exchange Pop-Fest Reviews
Bob Hay & The Jolly Beggars, PopFest 2008, Cine, 8/12/08
by Fran McDonald
The first thing you notice with Bob Hay is the guitars. Lots and lots of guitars. Or at least there was one. But the five-piece between them clutch a double bass, a violin, a mandolin (maybe, but at this point I am somewhat bluffing as my knowledge of stringed instruments is somewhat limited), a regular banged up old acoustic guitar and, satisfyingly enough, a banjo. Bob Hay clearly comes from the old Southern storytelling tradition, and his covering and toying with the poetry of Robert Burns' 16th century Scottish melodies is as innovative and exciting as it promises.
The narrative arc of the songs are brought to life by Hay's strange and alluring mimes. Later, he will produce a neon green flute from nowhere and the crowd will whistle. It is the kind of music that makes me want to collapse into foot-tappin' free-wheelin' word-abbreviatin' cliches whenever I talk about it. It is the kind of music that makes me want to wear a lumberjack shirt and a short denim skirt and dance in circles on dusty ground.
Appropriating Burns and restyling him in the American tradition of bluesy call and response refrains and ramshackle folk guitar melodies is inspired. And that is the point of folk music isn't it: it is designed to be passed down and rewritten and sung over and over again to new generations and new faces. And as far as storytellers go, you can't get much better than Bob Hay and the Jolly Beggars.
Flagpole, August 16, 2006
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars at The Melting Point, August 4, 2006
It's always nice to have an excuse to go check out a newish venue, especially one as supposedly snazzy and beautifully sound-equipped as The Melting Point. The recent combination of Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars and the same folks playing acoustic versions of Squalls songs from back in the day fit the bill.
The Jolly Beggars' two CDs (especially the more recent one, Tam Lin) do a pretty good job of capturing the way the tunes sound live, but they don't get the whole picture, which contains the sweet interplay among the bandmembers, between-song banter explaining why this or that is dirty, the ham Mr. Hay admits he brings along (to convey different characters, for example) or, quite, the earnestness of the songs. Hay's voice is always unexpectedly deep at first, which makes his high notes all the more poignant, whether in self-penned ditties or those of Robert Burns.
I don't know if it's ironic exactly that the very thing he thinks is indicative of genius - being able to toss something off rather than work at it - is almost countered in his and the band's live performance, which feels effortful. This is not to say that they're straining up there, but they're very purposeful, and at any rate, both nonchalance of the kind he appreciates and this kind of labor end up in the same place, which is the home of joy: experiencing it, wanting to bring it to others, knowing it in the world. Those are some big fancy words, and they might have been strangely undercut by the scent of hamburgers that wafted through the air on and off during the show, but people were hugging and reminiscing. A little dance party even broke out on the side of the room. It felt the way a high school reunion would if you could somehow remove the massive quantities of awkwardness.
Both sets and the milling around in between reminded me how happy I am to live in Athens, where all ages can bond over songs that don't have an expiration date and are considered without an overkill of seriousness.
- Hillary Brown
Georgia Music Magazine, Summer 2006
Tam Lin and More Songs by Robert Burns
A folk band in the truest sense of the word, Athens' Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars focus solely on performing the songs of the late 18th-century Scottish poet, songwriter and raconteur Robert Burns. On Tam Lin, And More Songs by Robert Burns, their second collection of Burns' work, Bob Hay (lead vocals, banjo), Bill David (mandolin), Dave Dowless (guitar), Ken Starratt (bass) and Diana Torell (fiddle) display a continued comfort with traditional music.
Hay's raffish whistle on "Whistle O'er The Lave O't" complements his seasoned vocal delivery found on most of the album's tracks. Most of Tam Lin's songs clock in with nimble effieciency -- many under two minutes -- though the title song is three or four times the length of many of its companions, allowing for an unfolding, rollicking narrative. "Sandy and Jockie" offers a nice example of competing sides of Burns' music. While Torell's fiddle bows wistful, David's mandolin picks light, lithe and lively; Hay's Jolly Beggars know well that for every late-night drinking party there must come a morning after of repurcussions, so, they suggest, why not just keep the party going?
-- Chris Hassiotis, Music Editor of Flagpole
(This review also appeared in the August 2, 2006 edition of Flagpole.)
Flagpole ABC Pick
Friday, August 4, Melting Point
Since 2003, Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars have been known for their acoustic interpretations of the melodies and eloquent prose of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Hay and fellow Beggars Ken Starratt and Diana Torell are also internationally known for their days in The Squalls, the popular Athens pop band from the 1980s. So far, Hay & Co. have released two albums of Burns' songs with a third in the works [see Record Reviews], but tonight the folkies meld their own storied past with Burns' literary past.
"Some of the Jolly Beggars have been pushing some of the Squalls stuff," says Hay. "I had been resisting the idea. They're always like, 'They're such good songs,' and I've been like, 'Yawn.' But one night I felt a certain emotional resonance to a couple songs and now I just want to do them one time in a show, to revisit some emotional territory and see what happens."
Hay makes clear that this will not be the original Squalls' electric dance party like their shows circa 1985. This is the Squalls two decades on and seen through the eyes of the Beggars. He's even billing the stripped-down troupe as "The Squallz" to differentiate this from the original band; a 12-song Squallz set follows the full Jolly Beggars set.
The Squalls' quirky rhythms and danceable rock have been altered to fit the stripped-down mood of the show. "The more strummy songs seem to work okay," says Hay. "Several of the songs were written specifically to avoid strumming. They were more in a call-and-response mode where each instrument would play a melody, interweaving with a couple other melodies… I'd like to get 'Crickets' working, but a lot of the songs were about 'the sound.' Maybe we can simulate guitar feedback and delay with pennywhistles or something. We'll see." Show starts at 8 p.m.
-- Lee Valentine Smith
Rambles, July 2006
Again to the musical panopticon which is Athens, Georgia, we journey, this time in search of a local ensemble whose first recorded effort is an homage to the lowland Scots native poet laureate, Robert Burns. Herein, 11 tuneful renditions of the Burns canon, essayed with heart and nimble musical skills by Bob Hay, vocalist and banjo plucker par excellence; Billy David on the mandolin; Diana Terell on the violin; Ken Starratt on the venerable double bass; and our percussionist, Brian Crum. The program is ably engineered by our good friend Mark Cooper Smith to best effect.
We open with the rantin' rovin' saga of Robin, a banjo-driven tune titled (perhaps predictably) "Rantin' Rovin'." Next up is "Rob Mossgiel," with some cracking banjo and mandolin work, but some less than successful vocal turns by Hay. It is followed by a lovely a cappella vocal opening to the standard "Green Grow (the Rushes, O)," which in turn gives way to an unusual treatment of "Bard of No (Regard)" (featuring the refrain, "for a' that," to which Burns frequently returns), unusual principally for the bit of a calypso rhythm given to this reading.
The bit-o-gloom march for the gallows-bound "Hughie G." concludes with a nicely wound-down rallantando, giving way to "Willie Brew," a tune much better suited to the vocals that frame it. Next up is the slow, nay, stately "Lea-Rig," which is in turn followed up by the waltz "Bonnie Doon," with an especially nice opening mandolin passage.
The set closes with three tunes that are very leanly produced, limited to Hay's voice and an accompanying guitar. The best of these is the first, "Collter Lad," followed in turn by the haunting "Crowdie" and a Burns standard, "For a' That," as the concluding number. In this their first offering, Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars have suggested that they have plenty more to say on the subject of Bobbie Burns. I await the next chapter eagerly.
by Gilbert Head
8 July 2006
Creative Loafing, April 19, 2006
Tam Lin and More Songs by Robert Burns
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars
By Lee Valentine Smith
The second album from Bob Hay's folksy combo proves that the former leader of Athens' Squalls was serious when he vowed to veer off the beaten path. An institution in the early '80s Athens scene, the Squalls produced a quirky mix of dance pop with considerable folk and jam tinges that influenced a number of younger acts, including Widespread Panic.
On the other hand, the second volume of songs by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) firmly entrenches Hay and his Jolly Beggars as hipster pundits. The inner core of this project is delightfully obscure in these modern times. The traditional folk melodies that frame Burns' lyrics, however, are as insistently catchy as the Squalls' good-natured pop music that had Athenians dancing more than two decades ago.
Former Squalls Diana Torell (fiddle, vocals) and Ken Starratt (bass) are still on board, joined by Dave Dowless and Bill David, and the literate minstrels eagerly tear through 18 selections, including the nine-minute "Tam Lin" opus, with Burns' thick Scottish dialect -- and bawdy humor -- intact. 4 Stars
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars CD release show is Thurs., April 20, at Farm 255, Athens.
Flagpole, April 19, 2006
Bards Of Some Regard
image credit: Chris McKay
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars Assemble Another Collection Of Robert Burns' Songs
You've probably seen Bob Hay walking around downtown at some point, with his trademark hat, or rocking out to Roll Deep Crew at Go Bar, and if you've seen Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out, you may also have recognized him from the section on The Squalls. Twenty years later, he's still playing and appreciating music, although the volume of the former has decreased a little. In many ways, Bob is the ultimate pop connoisseur, willing to give any kind of music a chance as long as the tune is good, and his current band The Jolly Beggars - Hay (banjo), Dave Dowless (guitar), Bill David (mandolin), Ken Starratt (bass) and Diana Torell (fiddle) - is all about good tunes.
The Jolly Beggars interpret the songs of 18th-century Scots poet Robert Burns. The concerns and topics of Burns' work remain relevant (though there was a bit less concern about binge drinking back then, what with water being more likely to poison you than beer). Flagpole sat down with Hay to talk about the band, Burns, the importance of having a day job to pay the bills and the group's sophomore album Tam Lin, And More Songs By Robert Burns, released this week with a coinciding performance at Farm 255.
Flagpole: Do you want to give me your standard sort of spiel about how the band originated?
Bob Hay: Well, I guess we were just all playing together, you know, the Squalls, and in between, I had two children. There was all kinds of stuff going on, so we kind of played off and on, but in the late '90s, we started jamming on Saturday nights. And then the Robert Burns thing kind of came into that, like a side project that I investigated. I decided to put on my show solo just because from being in the Squalls, it's like you say, "Hey, I got a whole bunch of new songs, let's all learn them..." and it'll be like [sighing noise], walls put up immediately, so I said I'll just do this myself and if anyone else wants to do it they can do it, and it worked out that they did.
The thing about Robert Burns, to me it's always been a question of "What came before?" Especially for someone my age, it's like a hundred years doesn't seem that long all of a sudden, whereas if you're 20, a hundred years seems like forever. So when I was working at Kinko's in the early '90s, I worked with Don Chambers for a while, and we were really into that old-timey stuff, back to the Carter Family and stuff like that.
The Robert Burns thing just kind of came up as "what came before that," because the 19th century seemed to be mostly like blackface minstrels and stuff, which is kind of interesting in that even then, it was like the black people making the music and the white people imitating them... So the Robert Burns thing was late 18th century, and the thing that's kind of kept me at it is that they're always better. I mean, now we have two songs that aren't on the new CD and it's like, "Aww, we should have learned those earlier because they're so good."
Flagpole: So did Burns write the music for these as well or did he just write the words and someone else wrote the music or are you writing the music?
Bob Hay: No, I'm not writing the music. That's one thing that's a common misconception, that I'm taking the poems and setting them to music. I would never be so smart. The most common thing is he'd take a traditional melody and write new words for it. A lot of times, they were really bawdy songs and he would kind of clean them up so they would be presentable.
But when he had his big success with his book, he went to Edinburgh to get a reprinting and he met this guy named James Johnson who was just starting putting out this song collection called "The Scots Musical Museum." That was like in 1786, and then basically, the rest of his life, every once in a while, he would just send songs in to [Johnson] and they would be published.
I guess all this started in 1707 when you had the Act of Union when Scotland merged with England, and as a result of that, there were several collections of Scots songs that people were trying to preserve, because they thought it was all going away and Robert was kind of continuing that.
Flagpole: How many songs are there?
Bob Hay: Three hundred and sixty-seven.
Flagpole: Can you just go get these out of the library?
Bob Hay: I have a book called The Songs of Robert Burns, edited by Donald Lowe, 1993, which he put out I guess because it was the anniversary of [Burns'] death. So it has all the songs in there and all it has is the melody line, so what I do, being the musical illiterate that I am, is I get my computer and I have this notation software and I copy it out, which is handy, because then I can change the key, too, and then I listen to it over and over until I get it and then I try to find what chords, what harmonic structures.
Flagpole: Where does the name come from? The Bob Hay part is obvious, but why "Jolly Beggars"? Is that in one of the songs?
Bob Hay: One of Burns' pieces, he called it "Love and Liberty: A Cantata," and it's basically a story of a bunch of beggars who are in this bar and then there are characters... the soldier gets up and sings this song to the tune of "Soldier's Joy." [singing] "I'm a man of war, been in many wars, and I show my scars wherever I come," stuff like that, and then there's a fiddler and a bunch of different people, so it's kind of a little play. Apparently, Burns forgot all about it, but five years after he died, someone put it out, but they called it "The Jolly Beggars."
Flagpole: And have you recorded that song?
Bob Hay: No. Well, it's like 10 songs.
Flagpole: Are you planning on it?
Bob Hay: Well, that could be a project for an album. And I was thinking, if this one doesn't do very well, then we're just going to have to go into the "sex sells" angle and do a bunch of bawdy songs, and the title is Bawdy Niches.
Flagpole: A lot of people would tend to think folk music is for their parents or for college professors, especially when they hear it's poetry and blah blah blah.
Bob Hay: Well, it will probably appeal more to people who are the English major crowd and whatever, but it's just music. I don't know.
Flagpole: How about the topics of the songs?
Bob Hay: Well, love from just about every angle you can think of, from sweet to dirty to different parts of marriage; drinking songs - there are three drinking songs on the new album. That's a big topic. I hate to be on the wrong side of the issue [laughs]. "Oh, we don't let the Jolly Beggars play at our alcohol-free nightclub." Of course, no one goes there [laughs].
Flagpole: When I was reading about Burns' life on your website, it reminded me a little bit of the contemporary rap narrative: he's bad off economically to start out with, and he falls in love with this girl and he gets her pregnant and he has to go out and make a name for himself, and reputation is very important at the time. I'm not sure how far you could take it.
Bob Hay: Yeah. He was kind of a prototype of the rock star, at least for a while, after his book came out and he was the toast of the town and all the rich people liked him for a while. And then he just went back and had to go through all this trouble. He got one of his rich buddies to get him appointed to Excise, so basically he was a tax collector.
Flagpole: That's not very cool. But a lot of people in town are like that, too. You have to have your day job.
Bob Hay: Yeah, you do. Plus, he had 12 or 14 children by different women and his poor wife actually raised some of the other children.
Flagpole: Anything else you want to tell me?
Bob Hay: I had two points. One is how I learned the songs and that the melody is there, I'm not making up the melody, which, some of the melodies are so brilliant, like, when you hit the high note, that's the emotional delivery right there, the words and melody flow so good together. That's how I decided on my definition of a genius: it's a person who can just toss stuff off and it comes so easy to them that they don't even realize how special it is, because they're just tossing it off, like R. Kelly. I mean, you know it has to be easy for them because otherwise it would never get done. And a lot of Robert Burns' lyrics, they are like throwaways.
Also, this evening we're going to try and make a video, which, I'm kind of surprised at because I'm not a really action-type person, but I've kind of pushed this ahead and lined up some people. All it's going to be is one of our songs and then people are going to do a little contra dance to it. I'm not really sure how the dance goes yet. But that's what art is. If you know the answer, why bother going looking for it?
- Hillary Brown
The 7th Annual Flagpole Music Awards Show Provided A Full Night Of Entertainment And Recognition
...Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars, the night's first musical act, presented a rousing performance of bluegrassy folk, interpreting the songs of 18th century Scots poet Robert Burns...
And over at the Day Jobs blog, Mail Clerk says "Flagpole awards were pretty good. Didn't start on time (as usual), but so be it. Dragged in a few places, but overall the winners were more credible and the performers were on par or above expectations. Bob Hay & The Jolly Beggars were particularly great."
Diana Torell plays the violin with Bob Hay and the Jolly Beggars at Borders in the Alps Road shopping center Sunday. The group performs songs by Robert Burns (1759-1796) and is scheduled to play at Athens Music Awards on June 23 at the Morton Theater.(Click to enlarge)
THE TOWN CRIER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Serving up 'Big Belly'd Bottle'
By Mark Davis
Who among us could resist listening to a song titled "Big-Belly'd Bottle," a ditty that begins thus:
No churchman am I for to rail and to write,
No statesman nor soldier to plot or to fight,
No sly man of business contriving a snare,
For a big-belly'd bottle's the whole of my care . . . ?
If that whets your thirst to hear more, hie ye to the Gwinnett History Museum on Friday to hear Bob Hay & The Jolly Beggars. This Athens quintet's repertoire includes Scottish poet Robert Burns' ode to the jug, among other songs he wrote two centuries earlier.
The band is this month's performer in the museum's Coffeehouse Nights series. The show begins at 8:30 p.m. The doors open at 8.
The museum doesn't have many rules, but they are good ones. First: No smoking. Second: No booze allowed. Third: If you have a cellphone, please turn it off.
Admission is $5, unless you're a museum member. In that case, cough up $4 and come on in.
The museum is housed in the old Lawrenceville Female Seminary, located at 455 Perry St., Lawrenceville. Call 770-822-5178 for more information, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're curious about the band, try this link: http://jollybeggars.netnik.com.
"Kevin's Celtic & Folk Music CD Reviews"- 3/2005
A Review of the Bob Hay & The Jolly Beggars CD "Toils Obscure"
Celtic Folk Music Index
For a guy over 200 years old, Robbie Burns still gets around mighty well.
First, we had Eddi Reader's "Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns" and now Bob Hay and The Jolly Beggars with another collection of Burns compositions. Despite his death at age 37, the creative prolificness of this Scottish composer is given tribute by the fact that there are no duplicate songs on these separate releases.
This offering is a strings galore acoustic production with Burns' material nestled primarily into banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar backing. The last few offerings are Hay solo with guitar.There's not a MacLean, Gaughan or Stewart in sight as Hay also provides the vocals with some backup harmonies.
Borne out of Hay's one-man-show "Bobby Burns One," this production is different than most because of the stringed instrument bonanza that is the essence here.
Hay's vocals are adequate but a translation of some of dialect Burns used is sometimes needed for understanding. Having written that, the genealogical phrase 'kith and kin,' used in the compelling ballad "Hughie Graham," always charms me.
"Rantin' rovin' Robin" is the opener, a great choice because its rhythm immediately invades the listener's body and forces movement.
Curiously, the cut 'Bard of no regard" has both the same rhythm and a repeat of some of the same phrases as the final selection "For a' that."
With Burns at his best in mixing ardor and nature, the love song "The lea-rig" is compellingly rendered, as is "Collier Laddie."
Maybe Robert Burns had no one signature song because, luckily for us, he had so many. And it is also in our favor that a number of them appear here as they do, bathed in an enjoyable mix of stringed instruments.
Bob Hay on banjo and vocals, is backed by Bill David on mandolin; Ken Starratt on bass; Diana Torell on fiddle; Dave Dowless on guitar; and Brian Crum on brush percussion as the Jolly Beggars.
Rantin', rovin' Robin - 2:29
Rob Mossgiel - 2:04
Green grow the rashes - 2:07
Bard of no regard- 3:12
Hughie Graham - 2:44
Willie brew'd a peck o' maut - 2:55
The lea-rig - 3:18
Bonnie Doon - 2:26
Collier Laddie - 2:05
Crowdie - 1:57
For a' that - 2:45
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Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars celebrate the birthday of Scottish bard Robert Burns
Robert Burns only lived to the age of 37 and died a man poor in financial worth.
But if immortality comes to those remembered for the words and songs they leave behind, it could be said, at least, that the spirit of Burns lives on.
Born near Ayrshire on the southwest coast of Scotland on Jan. 25, 1759, Burns was a poet and songwriter who published 368 songs (the few he didn't write were adapted from traditional songs or co-written with a friend) - among the most famous being the oft-drunkenly sung New Year's Eve tune "Auld Lang Syne."
But although Scotland's national poet may not be so familiar on this side of the Atlantic, in his homeland, he's legendary, with Burns' image adorning everything from towering statues to fine china.
Were he alive today, though, what likely would bring Burns the greatest pleasure is his music is still alive and rollicking, kicking up heels just the way it was meant to when he wrote it more than 200 years ago. And he'd have Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars in part to thank for that.
The Athens-based band, which will celebrate Burns' birthday next week with a slew of shows, formed around three members of the early '80s dance-rock outfit The Squalls. The five-member band began playing together as the Jolly Beggars in 2003, about a year after Hay debuted a solo concert of Burns' tunes.
"I didn't want to make them learn all these songs," Hay says of his bandmates, who at the time gathered together on Saturday nights to play tunes of the bluegrass and folk variety in bass player Ken Starratt's kitchen. "But after the show, they came to me and said they wanted to (learn them)."
Hay says he took an interest in Burns after reading an article about him in 1998 or so. He followed his curiosity to the University of Georgia library, where he found some 20 biographies on Burns, along with books of letters, poems and songs.
Initially, he picked up his guitar and started learning Burns' songs for fun, but soon he'd learned about 20 tunes and wanted to share them.
"He was different (from other poets of the day), because he was poor," Hay says regarding part of his attraction to Burns. "He wasn't Lord Byron, leisurely sitting around writing poetry. But to have so much creative output when he was under the stress of supporting his family and everything else going on at the time (is admirable)."
In March, 2004, Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars (a reference to a cantata by Burns titled "Love and Liberty," also known as "The Jolly Beggars") released their debut CD, "Toils Obscure," a lovely collection of songs that hearken back hundreds of years, beautiful for their lyrics and the arrangements of the Beggars' skilled musicians. Featuring Hay on banjo and vocals, former Squalls mates Starratt on double bass and Diana Torell on violin, along with Bill David on mandolin and Dave Dowless on guitar, "Toils Obscure" might rise from American voices, but it's surely rooted in the romantic moors of Scotland.
Hay says he isn't sure how true he's able to be to the songs' original sounds as played by Burns and other musicians of the day. The simple melodies and lyrics are all that exist from Burns' writings, so the band members have arranged the songs on their own.
"To me, it seems like we're doing them exactly as they were written down. But with 200 years (passing) and listening to the Beatles and other stuff along the way, our interpretation probably has some differences (from the way it was written)," Hay says. But, he adds, he doesn't know of any other bands performing this much of Burns' catalog today - though there are a few multi-volume sets featuring Burns' songs performed by various artists.
In his own time, Burns was only briefly a star and never enjoyed much financial gain for his work, but seems to have had some notion of the power of his words. Notes Hay - who in addition to Burns' own writings, has read a number of biographies about him - "At one point he did say that he would be more respected 100 years after his death than he was during his lifetime."
Bobby Burns Again
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25
Where: Little Kings, corner of West Hancock and Hull streets (just down street from Manhattan Cafe)
Cost: $3 at door.
In addition to the show, Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars can be heard live at 4 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, on public radio WUGA 91.7 on "It's Friday," hosted by Robb Holmes.
Longtime Athens Musicians Toil Away For Scottish Poet Robert Burns' Legacy
Equipped with acoustic stringed instruments and a name that hints at Renaissance Fair shenanigans, one might first be surprised that the members of the Jolly Beggars have long been fixtures in the Athens music community. Fronted by ex-Squall Bob Hay, the band also includes Hay's Squall-mates bassist Ken Starratt and fiddler Diana Torell. Mandolinist Bill David (formerly of the Michael Guthrie Band and YAMS) and guitarist-about-town Dave Dowless round out the lineup.
Hay and the Beggars have a long-standing tradition of gathering in kitchens and living rooms to play assorted traditional folk tunes. It was Hay's yen for the work of renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns, though, that really pulled the band together - out of the sitting room and into the studio, so to speak.
Last year the band released the first volume in its explorations of Burns' extensive and weighty back pages. The album, Toils Obscure: Songs by Robert Burns, is an enjoyable and festive excursion full of nimble picking, high spirits and tender balladry. Seeing as Burns' life was less than festive, it makes some sort of cockeyed sense that his writings often document moments of beauty and celebration rather than focusing on life's more dour aspects. The Beggars come off as something like Garcia and Grisman meet the Chieftains; strong ensemble work driven by Hay's bending vocals and the group's warm, comfortable support.
Flagpole recently shared some words with Hay as he and the rest of the band look forward to their upcoming show, which commemorates the 246th anniversary of Burns' birth. You'll also be able to hear Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars perform live on WUGA 91.7 FM on Friday, Jan. 21 at 4 p.m.
Flagpole: The Beggars' upcoming show is a celebration of Robert Burns' birthday.
Bob Hay: Yes. It's been a Scottish tradition to celebrate January 25 with what is called a Burns Supper since the early 1800s. I didn't really know about this until I began researching Burns, but it seemed like a good tradition to follow.
I like the idea of a third end-of-month winter holiday. We'll have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then, I suppose, Burns Night. This will actually be our fourth annual Burns Night. We don't really have a "supper," but this year we're hoping to be a little more elaborate. We have a bagpiper to kind of warm things up, and there may also be some poetry here and there.
FP: The Jolly Beggars' ranks are commonly associated with the more nouveau type bands (Squalls, etc.) of the early ‘80s Inside/Out era of Athens music. How long you guys have had a soft spot for folk or traditional music? Or is that something that developed after playing in rock bands?
BH: We've always liked a lot of different types of music. Once when we were taking CDs around to put on consignment at various record stores and it was funny to hear one clerk refer to my wife Vanessa [Hay, of Pylon] as "that old folk lady." I'm old enough to remember the 1960s' folk revival just before the Beatles came out, so I don't really see much difference between "rock" and "folk." A lot of it is just the difference between acoustic and electric guitar.
FP: Could you tell us a little bit more, then, about how the Toils Obscure project came to be?
BH: In the late 1990s, several factors came together that led me to the Robert Burns material. At the time the band was jamming on Saturday nights, playing mostly bluegrass and folk songs. Also I was playing my guitar more at home and rediscovering some finger-picking styles of guitar.
In 1998, I read an article about Robert Burns that led me to do more research into his work. Before that I had heard of him but never really read anything except some bawdy poems that were passed around in junior high, that sort of thing. The article mentioned that he had written or revised hundreds of songs, which was something I hadn't known. I went to the UGA library and checked out a biography, books of his letters and books of his songs.
FP: So there was an instant appreciation for this stuff?
BH: Yeah. Burns had a profound effect on me and really helped me to reconcile my own life. I mean, here's this guy whose life was full of difficulties — he was a poor guy who struggled to support his family and ended up dying at the age of 37 - and yet he could write poems and songs that celebrated life and expressed his feelings so frankly. It just made me realize that I didn't have it so bad after all. From the sheet music I began to learn some of the songs - I wanted to play my guitar more at home and this gave me the material to do so.
FP: Then the Burns stuff began working its way into your weekly practice sessions?
BH: Not quite yet. I didn't share these songs with the Saturday night jammers. I guess I suspected the songs were a little too weird for them what with the Scots dialect and all. From the Squalls days I knew the difficulties of teaching new songs to a band. Plus, I enjoy keeping a secret.
So when I announced the first Bobby Burns show in ‘02, they were all surprised. Fortunately, the show was well received. A few weeks later, Ken and Bill told me that they wanted to learn the material and be in the show the next year. This was great because I feel much more comfortable playing in a group than I do playing solo, and it would then be much easier to teach the songs now that they had asked to learn them. Vanessa encouraged us to record some of the songs to make a CD, so with the help of Full Moon [Studios] owner Mark Cooper Smith, who had been the Squalls drummer, too, I recorded some of the songs solo in May of ‘03. In September, we all went and recorded eight songs. It's all live with no overdubs.
FP: With Athens' healthy contingent of bookworms and literati, I'd guess that Toils has gotten a healthy reception from the world of academia as well.
BH: Some of the regulars at our shows are English majors but I haven't heard from any [in the] academic department. We did have a large crowd at an early show at the ACC Library, but they seemed to be mostly senior citizens!
WHO: Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars
WHERE: Little Kings
WHEN: Tuesday, January 25, 9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $3
Reviewer: Nick Norton
I confess, when I first heard Toils Obscure, I thought it was a joke -- an American bluegrass band playing songs by 18th century poet Robert Burns is an amusing premise. Hay's voice sounds odd, his accent roaming between Ireland, Scotland and the Southern US, and the banjo gives a distinctly bluegrass feel, so the disc is unlikely to win favor with strict traditionalists.
However, once you get past these initial hurdles, the music is atmospheric and enjoyable. There's very much a fireside pub jam feel to these live recordings -- which is appropriate, given the drinking-themed "Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut" and the generally rural subject matter. Indeed, the music's archaic nature makes it strangely refreshing -- it's nice to hear mandolin, banjo and fiddle instead of the usual guitar/bass/drums or electronics combo. However, Toils Obscure is not without recent points of comparison: the beginning of "Bonnie Doon" could be a Sufjan Stevens track, and the closing trio of solo guitar and vocal tracks ("Crowdie", "For a' that" and "Awa, Whigs, awa!") wouldn't be out of place on an alt-folk compilation.
Burns, baby, Burns
Reviewer: Lee Valentine Smith
Many music fans remember the Squalls from the golden age of the '80s Athens scene. The group's wildly popular danceable pop was a friendly oasis of whimsical wordplay and carefully crafted pop. "In the early '80s," says Squalls frontman Bob Hay, "downtown was deserted -- if you wanted to have some fun, you had to make it."
In 1998, Hay read a story in Smithsonian magazine about Scottish poet Robert Burns. "The article mentioned that he had written or revised hundreds of songs," says Hay. Intrigued, Hay went to the university library, checked out several books on Burns, and learned a few of Burns' songs. But he didn't share them with his musical peers. "I suspected the songs were a little too weird for them, what with the Scots dialect and all," he laughs. But when he presented a solo show of Burns' music two years ago, "they were all surprised." Soon his jam buds wanted to play the songs, too.
Now Hay and the Jolly Beggars -- featuring Ken Starratt and Diana Torell of the original Squalls, and friends Dave Dowless and Bill David -- have released Toils Obscure, a full album of Burns' tunes. "He's really helped me reconcile myself to my life," Hay says. "Here's this guy whose life was full of difficulties. He struggled to support his family and ended up dying at the age of 37, yet he could write poems and songs that celebrated life and expressed his feelings so frankly. It just made me realize that I don't have it so bad, after all."
Bob Hay and the Jolly Beggars play Thurs., Nov. 4, 8 p.m., at Meehan's Ale House, 11130 State Bridge Road, Alpharetta. $5. For more info, call 770-475-2468 or visit www.meehansalehouse.com.
The Green Man Review
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars, Toils Obscure: Songs by Robert Burns (Self released on Netnik.com, 2004).
Reviewer: Peter Massey
Toils Obscure is the right title for an album if ever there was one. For the son of a Scotsman, who is familiar with most of Robert Burns's songs, it comes as a bit of a shock. The reason is very simple: the style and performance of the songs isn't quite what I expected to hear. But I have to ask myself, where is it written that the songs have to be performed in any particular way? Indeed this is folk music, and as such should be open to any individual's interpretation of genre. The shock factor comes from the band being from Athens, GA, USA, and are probably more at home with the instruments used in playing bluegrass music. To take on the task of performing what is essentially traditional Scottish folk music in this fashion deserves to be applauded.
Robert Burns was born January 25th 1759, and despite being the son of a poor farmer, he was educated. He grew up on the family farm in Ayrshire, where he was known as a bit of a blade, and fell in love several times. He had a way with words, and the ladies liked his poetry, and so he turned to writing. At the age of 27, when his lover and future wife had given birth to twins, and her father was opposed to them marrying, given Robert's reputation, he began publishing his work to support them. As a result of his success, his lover's family relented and they were eventually married.
After playing the album a few times it grows on you and you can then identify with what Bob and the Beggars are trying to do. I liked the live sound of the album; the balance of the instruments plus the odd note slightly out of tune and the breathlessness of the singer easily identify this as a live recording at times.
The band are Bob Hay, vocals & banjo; Ken Starratt, bass; Diana Torell, fiddle; Dave Dowless, guitar; and Bill David, mandolin. Bob Hay takes all the vocals on Toils Obscure and on the last three songs: 'Collier Laddie,' 'Crowdie' and 'For a' That', he plays solo with just his guitar. On the rest of the album he plays banjo with the band. Most of the popular Burns songs are here and include 'Rantin' Rovin' Robin', 'Green Grow the Rashes', 'Bard of no Regard', 'Hughie Graham', 'Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut' and 'Bonnie Doon' to name but a few.
This is an album that may be different to what you might expect to hear, given the album's theme of 'Songs by Robert Burns' and the fact that they are not performed by a Scottish band. For this reason, and this reason only, I recommend you listen to some of the tracks beforehand to avoid any disappointment. It may not be as you quite expect. On a plus side, without the heavy Scottish accent, you can hear and make out most of the lyrics. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to conjecture! This subject would likely start months of debate in at least one traditional music magazine published in Scotland that I can think of.
Copyright by The Green Man Review, 2004. Permission received to reprint here by The Green Man Review. The review may not be used for any other purposes without written permission from the magazine.
Flagpole Magazine - v.18 No.14
Reviewer: Michael Andrews.
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars.Toils Obscure. Songs by Robert Burns. Independent release.
Anyone who's paid attention to Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out might not expect former members of Athens spazz-dance troupe the Squalls to offer up this straight-faced collection of olde-time folk tunes. However, that's exactly what we've got: 11 tracks of drinkin', letchin' scufflin' and dyin' all from the pen of 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Singer/ banjo man Hay is joined by fellow Squalls Ken Starratt (bass) and Diana Torell (fiddle), along with Dave Dowless (guitar) and Bill David (mandolin); this project started out as a gang of friends trading old folk tunes and reels around Starratt's kitchen table, and it feels as down-home as it sounds.
From the good pick and kick of "Rob Mossgiel" to the beautiful refrain of "Bard of No Regard," Hay and his Beggars have diehard folkie fun with the often dour-themed material and it's damned near impossible to not either tap your toes or get the urge to raise a pint to them and theirs. So, if you're like me and actually liked the Mighty Wind soundtrack rather than simply the idea of it, then you're sure to flip your fizzywig over what the Jolly Beggars have to offer.
Stomp and Stammer - v.9 No.9
"Support Our Troops"
Local propaganda assembled by Jeff Clark
Hoist ye Barley Brews, All Ye Sorry Drunkards: Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars celebrate the work of Robert Burns on their debut CD, Toils Obscure, giving the songs of the Scottish poet a respectfully agreeable acoustic folk backing. If you can't wait until their next annual "Burns Night" celebration in January, you can catch them at the Crimson Moon Cafe in Dahlonega on July 3rd. The Athens-based quintet features ex-members of '80's dance-pop act The Squalls, but you'd never know it if you weren't told.
A very interesting concept - to accurately represent the songs of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet/songwriter (1759-1796). Performed by Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars, the renditions delivered on this CD really do the work of Burns justice. And that's the true sign of a good folk group - one that faithfully plays enjoyable versions of the songs while helping to perpetuate the history and help classics live forever. Authentic enough to make you feel like you're in a Scottish pub. Well done!
Mining the treasures of the past seems to be a lost art, especially when it comes to music. Today the kids are interested mostly in cranking up the guitars or sampling an r&b riff from the seventies. Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars dig a bit a deeper.
On Toils Obscure: Songs By Robert Burns, this five piece band from Athens, GA, recreates eleven songs from a relatively unknown musician from the eighteenth century. The Beggars began their career together jamming on acoustic instruments on Saturday nights. After hearing the name Robert Burns being bandied about, Bob did a little research and soon learned nearly twenty songs. It wasn't long before the Jolly Beggars were ready for action.
These eleven selections from the Robert Burns' catalogue feature acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, double bass and percussion arrangements. The recordings are crystal clear and sound as if the band is right there in your living room. Starting off with the bouncy romp of "Rantin, rovin' Robin," the Beggars let you know that the party has begun. It's a classic sing along song, perfect for a Saturday night at the pub.
After "Rob Mossgiel" continues the melodies, the song "Green grow the rashes" kicks in with a short a cappella intro before the guitar and fiddle take over. Other highlights include the more somber "Bard of No Regard," "Willie brew'd a peck o' maut," and the quiet, reflective "The lea-rig."
Bob gives the band a break on tracks like "Collier Laddie," "Crowdie" and "For a' that," where the singer goes it alone with his acoustic guitar. With stellar fingerpicking performances and a golden voice, these songs add a stripped down sound to the last tracks of the disc.
For some classic tunes that were written way before you were born and still sound great today, check out Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars. With crystalline acoustic clarity these songs point to the days when songwriting was not about fancy studio tricks or big budget videos. It was all about the music. You can download MP3s of all the tracks on the CD at Weedfiles.com
Creative Loafing - Sound Menu
Published: 09/30 - 10/06/2004
Reviewer: Lee Valentine Smith
Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars. Bob Hay, the easygoing former leader of a hugely popular Athens rock band from the '80s, the Squalls, has a new gig. Backed by several former Squalls, Hay and his Jolly Beggars are reviving the folk songs of witty poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Their new album, Toils Obscure, is a pleasing literary journey into the past. If clever wordplay, catchy acoustic instrumentation and bookish beatniks are your thing, this show is highly recommended.