The Toy Hearts

Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The Toy Hearts made their Wheelhouse debut tonight bringing a feast of Bluegrass and Western Swing to South Yorkshire, demonstrating in no small measure their impressive ‘chops’, picking their way through several songs from their latest record Femme Fatale, together with one or two older songs and a handful of familiar covers from the world of Country and Bluegrass music.  Fronted by petite sisters Hannah and Sophia Johnson, with dad Stewart on banjo and dobro and the ‘newest’ Toy Heart, John Potter on upright bass, the band managed to fill the packed Wheelhouse with sound using little amplification, just a couple of vocal mics to balance the siblings’ voices, the rest totally acoustic.  Starting with Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling?”, the Birmingham-based quartet demonstrated not only their fabulous tight sibling harmonies but also their command over their astonishing musicianship, particularly Sophia’s eclectic flat-pick guitar playing, encompassing a broad range of influences including the Gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt, to whom she pays tribute to in Montpellier St from the band’s second album When I Cut Loose.  Taking lead vocal throughout, even on some of Sophia’s songs such as “Tequila and High Heels” and “The Girl That You Can’t Fool”, the mandolin-toting Hannah Johnson demonstrated a passionate commitment to performance on both the feisty numbers such as “When I Cut Loose” to the more sensitive songs, “The Captain” for instance, the current single from the new album.  Although Sophia’s intuitive high lonesome vocal harmony is crucial to the Toy Hearts sound, it’s with her dazzling guitar playing that this young performer will be remembered by this audience, alternating between her trusty Martin and her recently acquired Gypsy jazz guitar.  Playing since the age of seven and picking up inspiration from the likes of Clarence White and Tony Rice, the eldest sibling plays with a proficiency far beyond her age, especially on the note perfect “Beaumont Rag”.  With a handful of familiar songs such as Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”, the old Sun Studio period Elvis numbers “When It Rains It Really Pours” and “Trying To Get To You”, Kate MacKenzie’s bluesy Carolina and a couple of Hank Williams classics, “Your Cheating Heart” and “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”, the band showed a mutual respect for their musical forebears, each song delivered with authenticity and flair.  The band also played a couple of much newer country songs such as Ray Lamontagne’s “You Can Bring Me Flowers” and Dan Tyminski’s “Blue Trail of Sorrow”.  Finishing the same way they came in, with another Bill Monroe song “Think Of What You’ve Done”, the Toy Hearts returned for one final encore of “The Texas Blues”, famously recorded by the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.  A fitting conclusion to another memorable night at the Wheelhouse, and with the firm offer of a return to the area for the next Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival.  Hope so.  Providing support for the evening was young Staffordshire-born singer and recent joint winner of the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition held at the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, Amy Condrey, who opened with a handful of songs including Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”, Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”.