It was a couple of weeks ago when I first heard of The Toy Hearts, as a recommendation from Talia Smith, who you may know from the recent series of The Voice here in the UK. Described as a mix of bluegrass and western swing I liked what I heard and so searched for live dates, lucky enough to find an upcoming one in London. So this past Friday I made my way to The Green Note in Camden, London.
The venue itself was a fairly small and intimate bar with a stage and splattering of tables. Not being amongst the first few in the queue, yes there was a queue of people already there in spite of us turning up early, we missed out on getting a table, but did get a couple of high chairs (not to be confused with highchairs I should add) facing the stage. Or at least that’s what we thought – the direction of the two mics should have told us we were looking at the side of the stage, but we didn’t have much choice and we were going to get an excellent side on view and the sound would be fantastic.
The Green Note sells vegetarian bar food and I treated myself to not one, but two Bombay Potato Filo Rolls, and highly recommended they come. We had entered at 7pm and The Toy Hearts were to come on at 8.30pm, play for an hour, and then after a short break come back on for a second set. So no support, but more of the band we’d paid to see – no arguments here.
As 8.30 rolled around, so the band took to the stage. The band being Hannah on lead vocals and mandolin, sister Sophia on guitars and harmony vocals and Dad Stewart Johnson on banjo, steel guitar and pedal steel guitar. The only non family member was, I think, Stuart on double bass. The first set was acoustic, and with the band being new to me, you’ll have to forgive me not remembering exactly what songs got played at which points during the night, but what I can talk say with certainty is that The Toy Hearts blew me away.
The Toy Hearts play music that gets your heat racing, your foot tapping and the smile on your face growing broader with every song. Hannah’s vocals are full of passion, with power and grit when needed, and she’s the mouthpiece of the band between songs. We got lots of back story to songs, about their lives and what has influenced them. During the course of the evening we got to know them, both through their music and their tales. Although Hannah plays the front woman role, it seemed Sophia is the band leader, should there be two actual roles in a band of only 4! On guitar Sophia is a revelation, and in an industry where men are almost exclusively named in best guitarist lists, this lady belongs there too.
On CD there are more instrumentalists such as fiddle and piano, but live we see a lot more of Sophia, and that’s a real treat as she picks those strings with skill I have rarely seen. Not in a gratuitous way though, as many live 80s rock guitar solos were, but always very in mood with the song and never over staying their welcome. Her skills and those of Hannah on mandolin, obviously come from Dad Stewart, as he is a virtuoso on the multiple instruments he plays himself. The second set was plugged in, which meant Stewart played the pedal steel guitar, and having our side view certainly came in to its own here.
The whole evening felt so natural and these guys sure know how to play, and even made song decisions occasionally by chatting to each other on stage and then going full gusto into their chosen track. They played songs from their whole 4 album catalogue, though more from the latest 2 albums Whiskey and Femme Fatale. One of the songs that stands out is Montpellier Street, which is actually from their second album When I Cut Loose. I say one of the highlights, because there were many, and while I can’t say what was played when, I do have some favourites: Bring On The Swing, Mary Jane & Me and My Gin all from Whiskey. Tequila and High Heels from Femme Fatale is a song that perfectly combines humour with the very serious matter of heartbreak!
The second hour kicked off with the whole of the new EP Flyin’ Too High being played, which is a collection of four covers. The highlight of that was Five Minutes of the Latest Blues, which I can still visualise in my head and look forward to hearing again on CD, and live of course! The set list throughout the night was a combination of brilliantly penned Toy Hearts songs with some covers too, even one from the legendary Hank Williams himself.
What is evident is that The Toy Hearts are making music because it’s what they absolutely love to do, and on stage that comes across in spades. More than just a gig, I felt like I was being invited into the lives of the Johnsons for a couple of hours, and that was something I felt very privileged to experience. Bluegrass, swing, jazz, country, blues – The Toy Hearts aren’t one style of music. They bring the whole lot to the table in a seamless act of musical brilliance that I like to call The Toy Hearts, unsurprisingly. Kudos also to Stuart on double bass, whose name I hope I have right, as he provided the heartbeat to the whole gig, with some choice plucks thrown in too!
On the night I bought Whiskey and Flyin’ Too High, and when I got back I walked from the train station instead of getting a taxi, with the thought of getting Femme Fatale with the money I saved. Well that’s not enough, I’m going to have to get When I Cut Loose and If The Blues Come Calling too. I say have to, because it’s not a desire but a necessity.
I’ve been to many live gigs, quite a few pretty exceptional ones this year already, and seeing The Toy Hearts rates up there with the very best of them. The acoustics in the venue were top notch, with a really fantastic atmosphere and great staff too. I arrived at The Green Note liking their music, and I left as a huge fan, with any future gigs being added to the must see list. Do yourself a favour, check out the music of The Toy Hearts and I implore you to see them live – you’ll thank me for it.
You can see more of The Toy Hearts here: