Joseph Topping, from Wirral, is a multi-instrumentalist / singer / songwriter and by all accounts likes to keep himself busy. As well as gaining a reputation for his own work, he’s also known to use his considerable talent as part of The John Wright Band, Ashley Hutchings, The Rainbow Chasers and Elbow Jane.
Ghosts In The Shadows is his third solo album and first for Fellside Recordings. In this mixed collection of Americana , blues and traditional folk songs he’s ably assisted by Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals. Miranda’s an accomplished musician in her own right, of course, most recently enjoying work with Show Of Hands, Phil Beer, Leon Rosselson and Little Johnny England. Joe Wright and Richard Adams provide fiddle and drums respectively, and do an excellent job of complimenting Joe Topping’s musical twists and turns.
In addition to his well documented skills on slide guitar, Joe is blessed with a rich voice that can be soft in a lament, compelling in a ballad and a soulful howling when the blues takes over.
The album opens with a light guitar to introduce Circus Girl. Joe and Miranda’s voices are well matched and this self-penned song is a confident start to the album. This is followed by William MacKenzie And The Devil, a clear indication that Joe’s a fine songwriter. This true story of a Victorian railway engineer and gambler, whose dying wish was to be entombed sitting at a card table, is told with humour and is a joy to listen to. William Mackenzie was from Liverpool, but Joseph weaves the tale like a cowboy song – which, somehow, sounds just right.
Joe’s other influences are also well represented. In Come Not When I Am Dead, he delivers Tennyson’s poem with style. But it’s the American and Blues influence that most noticeable on this album and Holding On to Love gives us the first hint of his ability as a blues singer. Later in the album his version of Little Red Rooster resolutely affirms his blues guitar credentials.
There’s an overriding reason for the American influence on Joe’s work. Much of the inspiration for this album came during Joe’s long distance walk from Chicago to New Orleans, a 1400 mile trek across America in support of the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. Trouble showcases once again Joe and Mirnada’s well matched vocals in a song about escaping from a troubled life. Joe describes his inclusion of Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orleans as a ‘no brainer’ – given his three month walk. That makes perfect sense – and a great excuse for more of his impressive slide guitar.
In Bonny Light Horseman, Joe adapts Nic Jones’ version of the song for slide guitar with typical craftsmanship. His inclusion of The Lakes Of Ponchartrain, he says, has more to do with avoiding alligators on his epic American walk than falling for Creole girls.
On the whole this is a very soulful and laid back album. There’s the odd toe-tapper too though – All Coming Back To Me Now is a lively positive song with a humorous twist and a fine opportunity for Joe Wright to show off his fiddle skills. In closing the album with a live rendition of She Moved Through The Fair, Joe reminds us of his skill as a singer of traditional songs.
Ghosts In The Shadows does far more than simply mix blues and folk. It successfully blends these traditions while retaining their own distinctive voices and, helped along by Joe’s impressive dexterity on his Resophonic guitar, provides a collection of songs that stays fresh and engaging from beginning to end. I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more about Joseph Toppping.