In the run up to getting this review, and the interview to follow sorted, I had one of those conversations with someone that went along the lines of, “There are only two types of music – good and bad.” Whilst it’s a simplistic standpoint, it’s one that I find very hard to argue with, as generally you either like something or you don’t. Of course the qualifier here is that it also helps to be open minded, as it also follows the wider you are prepared to wander musically, the more there is to enjoy. So it is with The Vagrant Kings, a release that plays fast and loose with genre, defying easy pigeon holing. With the exceptionally talented guitarist and singer, Joe Topping, to the fore, matched by three equally able bodied players, it simply doesn’t matter whether this is folk, blues, Americana – all of these or none of these – as it’s simply a very, very good record, packed with great songs and phenomenal playing. In fact the more times the disc spins, the less ‘out there’ the description of Joe as equal parts, Ry Cooder, Woody Guthrie and Paul Brady seems.
Joe Topping has done some extraordinary things and not always taken the most obvious path. Perhaps that could be said quite literally of the couple of years he spent in America, firstly travelling around and living in a pick-up truck, before walking the 1400 miles from Washington to New Orleans with a guitar on his back, in support of the charity set up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to help musicians displaced by the disaster and struggling to rebuild their lives. The walk accounted for three pairs of shoes, but along the way Joe met many musicians, sharing and learning as he went, something that has unquestionably informed his playing and writing style.
Joe was already a veteran of the John Wright Band, having also played in his father Tom’s band. On returning to the UK, he picked up on an outstanding invitation to join Elbow Jane and then also Ashley Hutchings’ Rainbow Chasers. More recently he’s also fronted Home Service, while John Tamms Recovered from surgery. It all goes to suggest how highly Joe is thought of by some of the genuine heavyweights of the British folk scene, and goes a long way to explaining the five year gap between his own headline records (Read the FRUK review of his last solo release Ghosts in the Shadow here).
As with his last record Joe has surrounded himself with some very fine players and chief amongst them is the multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer Steve Parry, who has also recorded these sessions. Steve is someone else with wide ranging experience, including composing for major theatre productions and as well as guitars, keyboards, drums and bass, his contributions run to brass and wind instruments and string arrangements as well as backing vocals. He also brings the studio know how and a collection of vintage microphones to capture it all.
The other Vagrant Kings on the album are Scott Poley, who is himself a multi-instrumentalist and producer, although is here for his skills with the pedal steel, Despite his Merseyside base, he’s a player much in demand with Americans as much as Brits. The quartet is completed by percussionist, Jack McCarthy, another highly versatile player, who has studied in Guinea, Gambia and with Amadito Valdes of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba. Building up the layers of orchestration, there’s also the use of a string section on one song and Irish flute on a couple more.
As if to signal the variety of things to come, No Matter Where I Ramble suggests a blues and has the arrangement some elements, in the cadence of the chorus, with the lonesome swell of the Dobro-style slide guitar actually reminding me a little of Harry Manx’s eastern vibe or perhaps Ry Cooder’s Paris Texas. Overall the melody is sweeter, however, with something more of the folk song about it, whilst the pedal steel break adds something else again. Joe’s voice is excellent, full and passionate, with Steve and Jack adding some lovely harmonies too, with subtle organ and layered guitar work filling out the verses and what sounds like cajon and shaker keeping the beat. The exoticism is picked out as the lyrics refer to the Nile and Taj Mahal, but the sentiment is a simpler yearning for home.
Cat On A Cold Slate Roof is a very British inversion of the hot tin discomforts and here signifies cool as a cucumber in the face of love’s raging inferno. It’s clever stuff and beautifully crafted, taken slowly, allowing Joe’s voice to lead the song, naturally growing from a tender tremor to something more fervent and forceful. The string quartet is beautifully arranged too giving a framework through which the passions of the song entwine, as Joe rises to the hook singing, “I feel like a farm boy who fell for a queen, you set my love alight then poured on gasoline.”
The gospel-blues of I’m Not Going To Worry turn into a magnificent strutting New Orleans style marching song, with a swagger. The old-timey feel is completed with some raucous solo trumpet and the deep parp of a tuba or some such to give the bottom end its swing. The massing of overdubbed voices adds to the party feel and although the extra tracks make this something that will be hard to recreate live, without a sizeable cast of extras, it’s also easy to imagine it stripped back. Joe brings forth a roll call of naysayers, policemen, priests, unfaithful women and even the doctor, putting them all in their place. It’s great fun.
Things take a turn for the lovelorn and fateful over the next three songs, however, and the aching adagio of Heartbroken Blues finds Joe at the mercy of another as he asks, “If you could know what you’ve done, would you still do what you’ve done to me.” Despite its title it’s not a blues track, but This Love And Lack Of Money owes more to the Delta, with its circling resonator riffs and tale of a petty crime, committed out of a mixture of love and desperation, gone wrong. It starts and ends with an ominous hearbeat. Leaves On The Line is another clever song that finds the course of true love subject to delays and cancellations as Joe is once again seeking clemency as he appeals, “…how can one small moment of pain stop a love like a train,” concluding, “It’s just leaves on the line tonight.”
The sleeve splits the tracks into sides one and two and the latter starts with Put The Ground Beneath My Feet, a protest song that takes the principals of honest pay for an honest days toil and looks at the appalling waste and lack of opportunities that the spiralling divisions between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ create and the resultant rage that simmers.
The fateful hand that is dealt comes up again in Redemption, which offers another take on the longing and the tranquillity that perhaps only a meaningful love can bring. I can only imagine that the song is based on a character that Joe encountered on his epic sojourn, fresh out of Angola, the notorious Louisiana penitentiary. Things don’t go so well for the notorious villain in The Ballad Of William Burke, who was hanged after his accomplice, William Hare, turned King’s evidence in the famous story of murderous deeds to feed the demand for fresh cadavers for dissection that rocked Georgian Edinburgh. It’s a tale well told none the les, with a big folk ballad verve and authority, with the flute echoing Burke’s Irish heritage.
Slipping into this fateful mixture are two songs about love. Nominally the second track on side two of this record is the gorgeous One Beat Away, which is suggestive of the pains of a musician’s life on the road and the separation involved. It’s probably the most beautiful piece on the record, complete with keening pedal steel and some lovely piano work, while Joe hits that vulnerable place again. The last track offers another take on long distance love. Sweet Sixteen is the only none original to make it and a suitably forsaken end, albeit once more simply and beautifully recorded.
And so the fickle hand deals the cards as the tricks tumble through these tales of love and redemption, those that have found their place and those that are exiled, whether by their own misdeeds, or the cruelty or indifference of others.
The Vagrant Kings is really well crafted, both from the point of view of the playing and recording and also the way that the themes interlace. The more you play it the more Joe’s personality asserts itself and the more powerful his voice becomes, even in its softer moments, connecting the emotional highs and lows into the bigger picture. As he sings in Cat On A Cold Slate Roof, “And the thing that really matters when push comes to shove, is blessed are those who love and are loved.” What more needs to be said.
Review by: Simon Holland
I started on Route 66 from Chicago to St Louis with a 1950s Gibson acoustic on my back and a backpack on my front.
Read Part 1 of our Interview with Joe here.
The Vagrant Kings is out now via Fellside