It had been a few years — well, more like eight years — since we had last caught up to William Topley, and prior to our transatlantic chat, we thought we’d have a look at the British singer’s upcoming gigs. We noticed a monthly gig for the ex-Blessing frontman at Arcangel, a decidedly upscale bistro/pub located on Kensington High Street in west London, deep in one of the city’s busiest shopping zones and not far from the Royal College of Art, which counts Ian Dury, Ridley Scott and Adam Ant among its alumni. The Arcangel’s dress code warns that “no hoods, no caps, no scruffy trainers” will be granted admission.
Curious thing that Topley, the burly voiced singer/songwriter steeped in Americana vocal stylings and big on soulful, hyper-literate ruminations on love and redemption and the eternal struggle for a more perfect mortality, should find a monthly bit of peace on a little downstairs, low-ceilinged stage in London, even if the scruffy-trainer brigade has to wait outside.
“Yeah, I’m very fortunate actually,” Topley says. “I was looking around to try to do some kind of residency thing, not always for a full band. … We found this place. … It’s opposite a big hotel, and the room is not particularly used midweek. So they offered me one night a month at this place, and we’ve been doing it for two years.
“What’s interesting for me is that it’s become a focus for sort of disparate Blessing fans from all over the world. Last gig, there was a couple from Hong Kong — he was American, and she was English.
We’ve had people from Germany, New Zealand and even Uganda, where apparently they were playing ‘Drink Called Love’ [from Topley’s first solo CD] on Radio Free Kampala.”
Topley returns to the Arcangel later in September, but not before he renews his episodic near-residency in Boulder, gigging the Fox Sept. 10 with a full band (unlike his last few Boulder appearances, which have been acoustic dates) in support of the just released South On Velvet Clouds.
Boulder has long been Topley’s most consistently solid stateside gig, in part due to the durability of The Blessing’s “Delta Rain” on KBCO’s rotation, and Topley’s now-lengthy history of stirring live shows.
The new CD offers a full bounty for the devoted Topleyhead — the woozy, half-speed stomp of the opening ode to bruised humility, “Only So Much You Can Do,” the poised and touching “Sleepy London,” and the gritty, toss-it-all whiplash riffing of “No Tomorrow,” featuring longtime Topley cohort guitarist Luke Brighty in full grind and Topley in high-register strain like Bob Seger mainlining Red Bull, exulting “Got 20 bucks / got beer / fool’s paradise / is right here.”
The obscurely titled “The Man Who Lost America” seems not to be about anyone losing America, but a nameless loser-at-love protagonist adrift in a state of melancholy. After a lengthy dissertation about how he and Brighty construct their songs, finding chords and changes and general temperament, then mining it all for a melody and finally lyrics, Topley promptly concedes that this one came from a clever line all by itself.
“That’s an example of what I wasn’t talking about before,” Topley says, laughing a bit at his own expense, “where I heard the phrase ‘the man who lost America,’ which is to do with the man who was prime minister of Great Britain at the time of American independence. He was perceived by his opposition MPs over here as the man who was responsible for the British Empire losing its greatest asset. That’s where I started the song from — the actual song I’d written has very little to do with all that.”
One risks the deep water sparring with Topley over historical figures, but wasn’t losing America really just one of a long string of events in the centuries-long decline of the Empire? Between the floods and the plummeting dollar and the toxic, Fellini-esque performance art playing out on the 24-hour political news cycle, one wonders if the Crown is, in the final analysis, better off without us.
“But you see, I’m not one of those people who believe that,” Topley insists.
“I’ve always been sort of Atlantic-centric. I figure the higher up you go in the power tree in Britain, the more they tell you about the importance of our relationship with America. It’s sort of easy to be young and carefree and rail against it, but the older and more … sensible you become, you realize that you need to be with the right people. And I think that’s a good thing.”
On the Bill
William Topley and the Black River Band play the Fox Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 10. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Darden Smith opens. Must be 21 to enter. Tickets are $32.50 in advance, $35 day of show. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.