Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Thursday 20 December 2012

Although The Toy Hearts spend ever increasingly more time on the road, their hometown Christmas show has become a set feature over the years. The Birmingham based band have used several venues around the city to host their festive bash and this year they elected to return to one of their regular haunts. The Hare and Hounds is a lively suburban music venue comprising of a couple of upstairs rooms and, on this busy pre-Christmas evening,  the band had to settle for virtually selling out the smaller, yet still sizeable room. 
Georgette Jones      Image not from show

In line with other previous hometown shows, The Toy Hearts are keen to share the evening with other like minded acts and on this occasion they persuaded Georgette Jones to join them for a short set. Georgette has family links in the Midlands after marrying Birmingham born pedal steel player Jamie Lennon and couldn’t resist the opportunity for them both to perform on this holiday visit from their Nashville home.

Georgette and Jamie joined the band on stage for the final half hour of the evening with a short set list not surprisingly featuring a selection of family favourites. From her mother’s side came the popular Tammy Wynette classics ‘Stand by Your Man’, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’ and ‘Apartment No.9’, while father George wasn’t left out with ‘The Race Is On’. With the festive season almost upon us, the audience were treated to a delightful version of ‘Silent Night’ before Toy Hearts vocalist Hannah Johnson returned to the fore to end the night on a country note with a cover of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’.

While the enjoyable conclusion to the evening provided the cream, the real substance of the show was The Toy Hearts set which saw them focus almost entirely on their latest album WHISKEY. Having followed the band for a number of years, it has been interesting to see them evolve from a bluegrass outfit to one that’s more inclusive of the wider Americana movement. The new album is heavily biased towards the Western Swing sound and this proved the theme for this evening’s set. With the bluegrass influence put to one side, Stewart Johnson reverts from his usual dobra and banjo to concentrate solely on the triple neck steel guitar, an instrument central to a sound popularised by Bob Willis in 1930’s Texas. It has to be said that this has vastly enhanced a Toy Hearts live show.

The Toy Hearts     Image not from show
In fact Bob Wills is far more influential in the Toy Hearts current mode rather than their traditional source of inspiration, Bill Monroe. Two Wills numbers included on the WHISKEY album ‘Ridin’ on Down’ and ‘I Hear You Talkin’ were played on the evening along with the instrumental ‘Twin Guitar Special.’ Modern day swing is not left out with Wayne Hancock’s ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs’ featuring on both album and set list.

The band fronted by the Johnson sisters, Hannah on mandolin and Sophia on guitar, demonstrate that they are not just fine interpreters of old time music. They have self penned a considerable portion of the WHISKEY album with ‘Bring on the Swing’, ‘Mary Jane’ and ‘Stutter Blues’ all featuring on the evening. Having listened extensively to all four of the band’s albums to date, apart from a couple of old favourites notably ‘Montpellier Street’ and ‘The Captain’, WHISKEY is by far their most accomplished collection of songs and is the perfect theme to an enjoyable live performance.

The Toy Hearts are temporarily re-locating to their spiritual home of Austin, Texas for the second half of 2013. Hopefully the intended six month visit will mean another Birmingham homecoming show in a year’s time. While the extended trip will aid the band's development, they are very much needed in the UK to promote their brand of country music and many fans will eagerly await their return.

                                          The Captain - The Toy Hearts

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