Friday, 29 March 2013

Rebecca Pronsky + The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds Kings Heath Birmingham Thursday 28 March 2013

With The Toy Hearts about to re-locate to their nirvana of Austin, Texas, there was just time for them to host one more US visitor and showcase their talents to a Birmingham audience. So with immense personal delight the invitation was made for Rebecca Pronsky to join the band for a date on her current UK tour. The New York based singer-songwriter, hailing from the iconic but increasingly gentrified borough of Brooklyn, was brought to my attention when reviewing her latest album ONLY DAUGHTER and the critical praise that followed was based on her ability to melt so many influences into a cool sound. Having used the term ‘urban twang’ to describe Rebecca’s music, the opportunity to hear it live was eagerly awaited and there was to be no disappointment.

Within a couple of songs, Rebecca had quickly got into her stride and the awe-inspiring sound soon filled the smaller of the Hare and Hounds music rooms, which was well attended on the evening despite the next door counter attraction of Ian McNabb. The perfect balance of subtle twang from husband, producer and general musical sidekick Rich Bennett on electric guitar and the acoustic strumming from Rebecca, including a delightful 1936 tenor, complemented her first class vocals moulded from a touch of folk and urban indie. The immaculately presented Rich created a sound which conjured up an image of Twin Peaks. While on the evening his presence was a subtle accompaniment which occasionally flirted with an inspired solo, you sense a full ‘Memphis Sun-style’ unleashing could have been just around the corner.

Not surprisingly Rebecca was keen to share a fair number of tracks from the new album to those present and as per usual, it helped enhance the mid break CD sales. Of these new songs, the self penned ‘Rise Up’, ‘Better that Way’ and ‘Cold Hard Cash’ came over the best although these were closely matched by the only cover on the record, the appropriately named ‘Glenn Tipton’. Rebecca had to explain that the song, originally written by fellow American Mark Kozelek, had little relevance to the Judas Priest band member who hails from just outside the city of Birmingham.
Right from the outset, Rebecca was at perfect ease with the archetypical quiet UK audience offering entertaining banter about her tour experiences to date and explaining the background to the song ‘Aberdeen’, the Scottish version not the birthplace of grunge, from her 2011 album VIEWFINDER. The excellent ‘Hard Times’ from this record was also featured. The growing admiration of Rebecca’s music amongst those present was felt when she successfully encouraged audience participation to ‘Big City Lights’, a song from one of her earlier albums.

For me the absolute highlight of Rebecca’s set was her fantastic rendition of the Lucy Wainwright Roche song ‘Mercury News’, almost twelve months on from listening to the original in this very room. It also indicated how the New York singer-songwriter fraternity interlink and celebrate each other’s work. The Big Apple theme brought the set to its close with the song ‘Best Game in Town’ celebrating the magical mystique of that crumbling yet iconic Brooklyn attraction Coney Island. Rebecca and Rich had lived up to full expectation but their contribution to the evening had one final twist.
Over the years The Toy Hearts have evolved from a bluegrass outfit to one who now bases their sound on western swing. This is exemplified by their recent album WHISKEY which was a magical box of originals and songs spanning the generations of this sub genre of American roots music. The core of the band consists of the Johnson sisters’ Hannah and Sophia, alongside father Stewart and for me the switch has taken them up a notch or two. Unashamedly retro, the sound of Hannah’s mandolin has retreated a little while the driving force is now Stewart’s Triple Neck steel guitar and the more orthodox but equally exquisite finger picking of Sophia. Like so many of their recent shows including numerous at their adopted Hare and Hounds base, the trio are joined by the talented Spike Barker on upright bass and it remains unclear as to how their current sound can be bettered. Although their impending stint in Austin, the cradle of the genre, may provide an answer.

For this evening, the old Toy Hearts tunes have been shelved, as focus is switched almost entirely to the album as well as a handful of old classic country tunes that Hannah has sourced via drink fuelled vinyl listening sessions with her father, referred to affectionately as ‘Daddy Cool’. From the album we heard the band’s own take on swing with the impressive ‘Stutter Blues’, ‘Mary Jane’ and the highly infectious ‘Bring on the Swing’.  They spanned the generations with the covers selected,  from the classic Bob Wills number ‘I Hear You Talking’ to a more modern choice of Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock’s ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs’.
While Hannah’s mandolin may have been toned down a little, her husky vocals still decorate all the songs including the brace of new offerings exclusively served during the set. Ray Price is still a relevant figure in country music today following his exchanges with Blake Shelton, and the band covered his song ‘Sitting Thinking’ as well as Wade Ray’s ‘Too Late To Cry’. A Toy Hearts’ set rarely excludes a Hank Williams’ number and the evening ended with a version of ‘Sweet Love Around’, not one of his more familiar songs but still carries all the trademarks of his sound. By this time, Rebecca and Rich had joined the quartet on stage for an impromptu jam starting with one of her older songs ‘Million Days’.

Rebecca joins The Toy Hearts for a jam.
While they operate at slightly differing ends of the wide Americana genre, there is so much synergy between the music of Rebecca Pronsky and The Toy Hearts. The warmth and affability between the acts contributed to an enjoyable evening. The Toy Hearts have one more Hare and Hounds’ swansong before their Lone Star adventure begins while hopefully the positive reaction heading Rebecca’s way will lead to a return visit in the not so distant future.
                                                      The Toy Hearts - Captain

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