Thursday, 21 December 2017

Hannah Johnson & the Broken Hearts - Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Wednesday 20th December 2017

Just over a month ago, The Stray Birds stood on this very same stage delivering their signature line ‘music is the best medicine I know’. In light of the bittersweet narrative that played out as the backdrop to this evening’s gig, it was uplifting to witness the notion of the ‘show goes on’ and even more appetising to savour a very special brand of ‘real’ country music to bring the curtain down on 2017. Upon reflection, it wasn’t the Johnson sisters' hometown reunion, or the virtual sound of the pedal steel conjuring up its spiritual existence that defined the show. It was country music in its purest form that dominated, courtesy of a revised Hannah Johnson & the Broken Hearts line up and a shared sentiment wishing Stewart Johnson a swift road to recovery.

On a night where awarding bodies ranging from Ameripolitan to BCMA were namechecked in differing shades, the highest accolade had to go to Hannah for playing a pivotal role in somewhat tough circumstances. Using every sinew of her musical passion, she led the band admirably through a wealth of complementary material, standing aside when necessary to afford a couple of impeccable pickers the platform to excel. Never afraid to stretch her vocal acumen, a series of diverse covers just exceeded the original offering, while contributing to a seamless hour and half of beam balancing music in terms of authenticity and true to the deep-rooted core of a maligned genre.

From a live audience perspective, Sophia Johnson’s relocation from Birmingham to Austin was a real loss to the local music scene. To counteract this, it was probably a personal blessing and one on the evidence of tonight’s performance, a shot in the arm to move a talent onto a higher plane. Toy Hearts gigs may have become a hazy memory, but the playing tonight was breathless. Maybe, this is the level you have to reach to thrive in Austin. To be fair, regular Broken Hearts guitarist Chris Shirley matched her lick by lick, and although it didn’t materialise, you felt a dual was just around the corner.

Drummer Howard Smith and upright bass player Steve Smith completed the line-up, adding a degree of solidity to the rhythm backline. Hannah continually switched between acoustic guitar and mandolin, the latter a remnant of her formative years on the British bluegrass scene. All facets traditional country now remain her focus, from western swing to rockabilly, though not averse to blending in a little outlaw, honky tonk, blues and the old school Nashville sound. ‘New’ country music was a chasm away.

Hannah Johnson & the Broken Hearts released their debut album earlier this year. It proved a delightful mix of smart covers and forceful originals. ‘Morning Cocktail’, ‘Nowhere Train’ and ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ led the way with the up to date writing credentials in this evening’s set list, which meandered from modified to spontaneous status. Some of the covers, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Ray Price standards, need little documentation, other than a timeless appeal to the listening quality. Outside these, less familiar Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline tunes were given the Broken Hearts treatment alongside numbers from Ernest and Justin Tubbs, Ronnie Self and Roger Miller, which probably don’t see much life away the horizon of the country music aficionado. The transplant of the latter’s ‘Not in Nottingham’ to a West Midlands version of ‘Not in Birmingham’ represents a love/hate relationship the sisters have had with their home city.

To spice up the country content of this end of year hometown show, Hannah invited exiled American singer-songwriter Lars Pluto to play the opening slot. A heart on the sleeve –  takes no prisoners approach to preserving the ethos of ‘real’ country music absolutely defines this performer, who shares his professional time between creating original music and treading the theatre boards in the guise of his heroes. Finding an outlet for his passion can be an increasing challenge, but this will not deter a vigorously focussed defendant. Whether, penning controversial articles for national music magazines or forthright messages in his songs such as the hot off the press ‘Dear Country Music’, lines are etched and swords are drawn. In revolutionary times, catalysts are needed and one may be in our midst.

Hannah Johnson is another fully paid up member of the genre preservation society and her musical stance is a trait that has shone brightly for as long as she has stood on stage proclaiming the worth of her beloved music. From the early days of the Toy Hearts to the difficult circumstances relating to this hometown show, she has steadfastly stood up for what she believes in and created a niche within those who share her ideals. 

The past can either be learnt from, or upheld, while the future will always be the realm of the unknown. Living in the present on the evening of December 20th 2017 however, saw a celebration of what ultimately binds many likeminded people, with the winner being neither artists nor audience, just ‘real’ country music or effectively ‘three chords and the truth’. Music is really the best medicine. 

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