They look good, they sound great, their musicianship is exemplary. So after 12 years and 4 albums, why aren’t The Toy Hearts packing out the NEC? Quite simply, the musical field in which they dwell is a field of bluegrass, which puts them well off most people’s radar.
The Toy Hearts are fronted by the Johnson sisters, Hannah & Sophia on mandolin/vocals and guitar/vocals, backed by their father Stewart on dobro/pedal steel, and tonight Howard Gregory on fiddle, and Al Gare (from Imelda May’s band) on stand-up bass. They played 2 sets at a reasonably full Glee Club, the first one filled with favourites from their first 3 albums, and in the second they played almost their entire new album ‘Whiskey’. From the moment that they start, I realise that my preconception of bluegrass is all wrong. In my mind it was a yee-hah, knees-up sound that I was expecting, but this has much more subtlety, depth and style.
Stand out songs from the first set were a beautifully performed cover of Kate Mackenzie’s ‘Carolina’, and their own standout composition ‘The Captain’. Both these songs appeared on their 3rd album Femme Fatale, the former harking back to their residency at the Ceol Castle over 10 years ago, and the latter a confirmation of how mature their song-writing has become over the years. It was dedicated to the UK bluegrass community, with whom they seem to have a mutual antipathy. The opening lines telling all ‘Who are you, to tell me what to do……’. All the songs were well received, but there was a cathedral like quiet during the music. In fact halfway through the set, Hannah chided the audience ‘You can make a noise you know, it’s not a folk club’. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard an artist making such a comment at the Glee Club. Possibly it’s being seated in full view of the stage, in such intimate surroundings, that makes the crowd so reticent to relax.
For the second set Toy Hearts were joined by Dean Beresford (Richard Hawley band) on drums. Evidently bluegrass purists would find this an absolute outrage. Not sure why, but Dean’s playing (mostly with brushes, I think) augmented the music well, without detracting from the overall blend. ‘Whiskey’ consists of 6 originals and 6 covers, and Toy Hearts played 10 of these in the second set. Perhaps the greatest compliment would be that there was no appreciable difference in the quality of the songwriting of either the originals or the covers.
Alcohol seems to be a recurring theme in the Toy Hearts songs. In the first set we had ‘Tequila And High Heels’ and ‘Pass The Jack’, and now a cover of Dinah Washington’s ‘Me And My Gin’ and the title track from their new album ‘Whiskey’, which finishes with the haunting line ‘…and whiskey won’t take the taste of heartbreak from my mouth’.
A thoroughly enjoyable night, with a highly polished, talented band of musicians. Catch them ‘live’ if you have the opportunity.
Review – Alan Carruthers
Photos – Alex Dean