Monday, 2 December 2013

Jitterbug Vipers + The Toy Hearts - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham Sunday 1st December 2013

Having made an all-to-brief visit to Austin, Texas a few years ago, it wasn’t too difficult to absorb yourself into the psyche which made this alternative oasis ‘the live music capital of the world’. So whenever exports from the capital of the Lone Star State hit your town, it’s best to expect the unexpected albeit usually with a high quality guarantee. Upon their return from a six month stint in Austin, Birmingham based The Toy Hearts have wasted no time in extending  the invitation to share the talents of the Jitterbug Vipers with a UK audience. In line with several previous evenings over the past year, the band played host to their guests and shared a bill at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath.

For the record, the Jitterbug Vipers are a four piece band specialising in creating a sound that swept through the jazz rooms of prohibition era America but the challenge is how to put into words the ambience and mesmeric atmosphere which emanated from their interaction during the hour-plus long set. Amidst a scene of onstage eccentricity and joviality, the audience were seduced by a sound split between smart originals and ongoing standards which provided a taster of an era where legalised drugs reigned supreme over outlawed alcohol and gambling.

However before we were immersed into the vibes of viper jazz, The Toy Hearts announced their return to a home town crowd with a staple and well executed set of that other great musical sound of Austin, Texas – western swing. With a mixture of self-penned tunes and covers from that genre spanning the decades, the trio of Hannah, Sophia and Stewart Johnson have hit on a style which has seriously moved their live show forward. The promise of new material recorded during their extended Austin visit was delayed a little longer. However while this is highly anticipated, the reproduction of songs from their recent CD WHISKEY and carefully selected covers still retain that embedded ability to showcase the high quality sounds from Stewart’s triple neck steel guitar, Hannah’s mandolin and Sophia’s, on this occasion, electric guitar.

With a reasonably sized audience in the venue’s smaller music room suitably entertained by one strand of Austin music, the stage was set for the quartet of Sarah Sharp (vocals), Masumi Jones (drums), Francie Meaux Jeaux (bass) and Slim Richey (guitar) to take you on a journey of discovery deep into an inner world where artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were central figures. The mood inducing sultry vocals of Sarah are the cornerstone of a Jitterbug Vipers’ set and she extends her talents to co-writing the original material, all of which appear on the latest record PHOEBE’S DREAM, incidentally also produced by her. A touch of eccentricity flanked Sarah in the guise of married couple, Slim and Francie. We learned that they had been married at least 13 or 14 times as well as owning a large piece of land in the wide open spaces of West Texas costing a mere $5. Perhaps the most intriguing and entertaining member of the band was Masumi who added a sheer infectious joy and radiant aura to her percussion role as well as some impromptu off mic yells.

Photo by April Miles
The Vipers excellent new album PHOEBE’S DREAM supplied all the original material for the set with the elegant ‘Viper Moon’, entertaining real life tale ‘Dangerous’ and the humorous ‘Stuff It’ leading the way. Alongside these and other tracks from the record, we learned about the vocabulary and the ethos of this period as well as the origin of one of the evening’s covers ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’ and its name change from the original one of marijuana. The other classic interpretations from this iconic era of American music included a Billie Holiday number ‘Billie’s Blues’ and the much loved ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, made popular by Bessie Smith.

Aside aspects of the Jitterbug Vipers attempting to live up to the motto of ‘Keep Austin weird’, this band certainly put on a memorable show which grew in stature with each song and story. The judgement of The Toy Hearts, and a few others who have championed this act, certainly paid off. The purchase and playing of PHOEBE’S DREAM is proving to be the perfect night cap following an enthralling experience of seeing the Jitterbug Vipers live.

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