Gig Review: The Toy Hearts at Great Northern Wine, Ripon
If the Toy Hearts have ever considered the question of genre, they have long since stopped wrestling with the contradiction of being a British band playing American music. Even hailing from Birmingham, England, rather than Birmingham, Alabama, seems an almost deliberate and provocative challenge to convention. And quite rightly so, because with the first blast of faultless harmony from sisters Hannah and Sophia Johnson, any concerns about provenance start to seem petty and inconsequential.
Just to get us warmed up, the band rattle through a few numbers of their own material: there's "Femme Fatale", the title track from their most recent, Nashville-recorded album, which makes the entirely plausible case for the Devil being a woman. "The Captain", recently released as a single, is a stinging rebuff to those who would argue the essential contradiction of a British bluegrass band. Not only do these pieces show a deft command of songwriting skill – not to mention an impressive degree of bottle – they’re a hint that lovers of bluegrass and western swing might just be in for a rare treat tonight.
It's not all harmonies and sunlight: there's a dirty, swampy, reverb-drenched ballad, the aural equivalent of sucking on a mangrove root, and the obligatory train-themed bluegrass song, which carries not only the sentiment of a long-distance rail journey, but the rhythms, noises and mechanical musicality of a train ride which are expertly conjured by nothing more than a few stringed instruments.
The conditions on the hottest day of the year so far suit the music down to the parched ground, helping the imagination transport the small but capacity crowd several decades back, and several thousand miles west, to a land of scratchy 45s, AM radio and heat-haze shimmering above a pencil-straight lick of dusty tarmac.
After the interval, things are subtly different. The girls' slight, silver dad Stewart, who had been delivering frantic, fervent fingerpicking on banjo in the first half, now moves to a three-neck steel guitar. Sophia unveils a beautiful vintage Gibson archtop with soapbar pickups. And it’s this arrangement (not forgetting a solid, rhythmic performance from their 18th bassist in 10 years) that proceeds to casually deliver one number after another from the classic country songbook. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, they're all present and correct, and beautifully played, familial intution keeping the band tight and sharp. Dinah Washington's "Me And My Gin" wraps things up, the sultry, husky country arrangement counterpointing the sardonic tone of the original.
It's clear that the girls have a genuninely honest, heartfelt love and respect for the material and the artists who wrote and recorded it. Hannah confesses to having had a Hank Williams poster on her bedroom wall, at a time when presumably her contemporaries were more enthusiastic about Robbie Williams. The audience tonight is all the more fortunate for the direction this family has taken, and the devotion they have in ensuring the world hears the music they adore. You could call it a genre of one.