5th May 2013
I only discovered the Toy Hearts in 2010 when they had a mid-afternoon slot at the Gateshead SummerTyne Festival and it was immediately obvious that not only were the two young sisters who fronted the band easy on the eye; they were excellent musicians too. Subsequently I’ve seen them a further twice and each time the band have been better than the previous visit.
Tonight’s concert was tinged with sadness as the Johnson family aka The Toy Hearts are packing their bags and moving to Austin Texas, in a ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ kinda Country Music style; meaning this was something of a farewell tour.
The concert was opened with a short and extremely enjoyable set from Dutch singer-songwriter Vera Van Heeringen who last visited the Jumping Hot Club 10 years ago; but will be back in July for this year’s SummerTyne Festival.
As is common with many Dutch people her spoken English is flawless but has a strong American accent; which confused a few folk at the interval. Vera’s songs were a mix of folk and Americana with Old Man and This Day being the most memorable.
More important than her singing or her songs; Vera is a helluva guitar player! In fact she was extraordinarily good; she bravely included three instrumentals in her set and each one would have made many more established (male) guitarists proud to say they’d played that good.
I can’t write an honest review without mentioning the elongated guitar solo during Believe Like A Believer; which she later admitted had been because she’d forgot the words! That’s why I love live music.
The Toy Hearts are a four piece from Birmingham in the heart of England and multi-instrumentalist Dad Stewart educated the girls, Sophia and Hannah in the History of Music by letting them listen to his extensive record collection. Both girls were soon hooked on Western Swing and Bluegrass and now that’s what forms the basis of their act.
The sister’s harmonies are straight out of the Bluegrass Handbook and both sisters are now exceptional musicians in their own rite with the eldest, Sophia being a gifted guitarist and Hannah plays mandolin and sings like an Angel (after the Angel has had a drink or two!)
The diminutive blonde singer explained that the set would be split into two halves with the first half hour being Bluegrass and the final hour Western Swing. Personally I think that the Toy Hearts should forget about labelling themselves in this was; as they say themselves they keep falling foul of the Bluegrass Police; so if I was promoting them I’d just call them the British Queens of Country (Stewart can be their Wizard) and leave it to the audience to decide which song is which.
It didn’t take them long to introduce the first drinking song of the night – Pass The Jack and it was as smooth and feisty as the drink of the same name and after Stewart aka Daddy Cool excelled on his Resonator during Kate McKenzie’s Carolinaalcohol reared it’s ugly head again with my favourite song of theirs, Tequila and High Heels which I expect to be recorded by a variety of Country singers once the girls unpack their bags in the USA
The Toy Hearts wear their influences on their sleeves and tonight, their version of Hank Thompson’s Drunkard’s Blues was amazing and covered every Country base – love, passion, drink, betrayal, murder and prison. What’s not to like?
A sign of the quality on offer was when Sophia took the lead on a self-penned tribute to Django Reinhardt; called Montpellier St. She moved seamlessly between Bluegrass guitar breaks through Jazz licks and I’m sure she could easily have been mistaken for a Classical guitarist as her fingers were like liquid lightening as they flicked across the strings.
As she got her breath back the microphones were moved to accommodate a steel guitar and Sophia’s own electric semi-acoustic guitar for the Western Swing section and boy; what a treat it was.
The band started with Bob Will’s I Hear You Talking and followed that with a song I remember from the first time I ever saw them – Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. I liked their version then and it has developed beyond recognition until tonight; when it was even better than the original.
The set ended with a song called Too Late To Cry which had Stewart making his Steel Guitar gently weep as Hannah’s voice warbled it’s way through a beautiful love song until they received a standing ovation as they left the stage and immediately returned for their encores; another Bob Wills song –Riding On Down and a rip-roaring Rockabilly song called Big Four that had a couple of people actually dancing at the back.
I’m a fan of the Toy Hearts; but they have probably outgrown the Country circuit in the UK and the move to America will; hopefully be the making of them as they are a hard working band that loves playing live. If they come to a town near you call in and tell them Alan from Newcastle sent you.