Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars,
Toils Obscure: Songs by Robert Burns
(Neatnik, 2004)

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

Bob Hay & the Jolly Beggars have collected an album's worth of Robert Burns songs on Toils Obscure.

The Georgia-based quintet has a distinctive old-timey sound that undercuts the Scottish bard's work, and Hay's voice is a gravelly affair straight from the hills.

It's an uneven result. Burns music is, by nature, fun, and the Jolly Beggars jam through the tunes with a lively will. But Hay's raspy voice is a stumbling block for me; it doesn't suit the lyrics, music or mood.

Besides Hay (vocals, banjo and acoustic guitar), the band includes Ken Starratt on bass, Diana Torell on fiddle, Dave Dowless on guitar and Bill David on mandolin. Instrumentally, the band is solid, if not remarkable, although the fiddle is wisely dropped down in the mix.

Songs on the album include "Rantin', Rovin' Robin," "Rob Mossgiel," "Bard of No Regard," "Green Grow the Rashes," "Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut," "The Lea-Rig," "For a' That" and other Burns staples.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this as a musical postcard for diehard fans of the Jolly Beggars and Robert Burns completists.

by Tom Knapp
9 February 2008


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