Joseph's amazing Seventies dreamband

Toploader | Shepherd's Bush Empire Willard Grant Conspiracy | Borderline, London
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The Independent Culture

Call me foolhardy, but I'd bet that Joseph Washbourn has smoked more dope in his time than the entire shadow cabinet put together. The frizzy-haired singer/songwriter/keyboard player of Toploader, Washburn is the man behind such lyrics as "Don't fret, get high/ There's a new dawn that says hi" and "Circles appear in my mind / Floating through space and through time". Just to give Ann Widdecombe even more to worry about, Toploader's debut album has been hanging around the top 40 like a fug of acrid smoke since its release in May - all this despite being handicapped by the worst title ever printed on a record sleeve, Onka's Big Moka. What more terrifying evidence could there be of the marijuana epidemic that is munching at the very foundations of British society?

Call me foolhardy, but I'd bet that Joseph Washbourn has smoked more dope in his time than the entire shadow cabinet put together. The frizzy-haired singer/songwriter/keyboard player of Toploader, Washburn is the man behind such lyrics as "Don't fret, get high/ There's a new dawn that says hi" and "Circles appear in my mind / Floating through space and through time". Just to give Ann Widdecombe even more to worry about, Toploader's debut album has been hanging around the top 40 like a fug of acrid smoke since its release in May - all this despite being handicapped by the worst title ever printed on a record sleeve, Onka's Big Moka. What more terrifying evidence could there be of the marijuana epidemic that is munching at the very foundations of British society?

If there is another reason for Toploader's success, it wasn't immediately apparent at their show on Thursday, the first of two nights at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Visually, all that distinguished the quintet from a Faces tribute band was Washbourn, sitting behind a keyboard centre-stage, and shaking a mop of curls that wouldn't have looked out of place on Roger Daltrey at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Aurally, Toploader belong in the same era as the Faces and the Isle of Wight, too. Their breakthrough hit, "Dancing In The Moonlight", is a cover of a song which came out in 1972 and all the evidence suggests that it's the most modern record in Washbourn's collection.

Toploader have been extraordinarily successful for such an ordinary band. Their old-fashioned rock'n'roll boogies have more in the way of polish and positivity than of memorable tunes, so it's tempting to resent their speedy ascent. Or it would be, if there weren't so much unforced bonhomie to their performance. Washbourn's sterling defence of his hometown, Eastbourne, was particularly charming. "You wait 'til you're 65," he chided the crowd. "There's no better place to retire." The music benefits from this mateyness, too. There was a sequence in "Dancing In The Moonlight" when the bassist and both guitarists all clapped their hands above their heads at once, and it did me good to see such sweetly unironic enthusiasm.

Unlike some of the British musicians who boycott any record released in their lifetime, Toploader don't aspire to be profound or misunderstood. They make straightforwardly upbeat party music, peppered with Elton John piano solos, rock opera harmonies and hippy platitudes - nothing more or less. If they happen to have sold a quarter-of-a-million albums by filling a gap in the market, don't blame Toploader. Blame those angst-ridden, self-regarding bands who left the gap in the first place.

Willard Grant Conspiracy aren't angst-ridden or self-regarding, but they're about as far from Toploader's chirpiness as you can get. Several songs on their new album, Everything's Fine, appear to have been written by jumbling up a set of Nick Cave fridge magnets: crows, sin, the Devil, redemption, knives, blood and whiskey are all present and correct. Robert Fisher's deep, knowing voice is like Nick Cave's, too. Other influences are the Tindersticks, Mark Eitzel, Townes Van Zandt and the records REM made when Peter Buck was in his mandolin phase. But, to put things in perspective, a friend of mine is one of the world's leading devotees of Cave, Eitzel and the Tindersticks, and even he describes Willard Grant Conspiracy as "miserable bastards".

Formed in Boston in 1995, and already on their fourth album, WGC spin dark and dusty alt-country tales with a melancholy prettiness which makes them ideal listening if you're on your own under the desert stars, or, more likely, if you want to pretend you are. Surprisingly, WGC are also an entertaining, charismatic live act. The band is led by Fisher on vocals and Paul Austin on guitar, and includes whichever other musicians they can round up at any given time: on their latest album, there were 13 conspirators; on Tuesday there were seven.

One of these was Mary Lorson, who is best known - although not very well known - as the singer of Madder Rose. She has just released an album of mysterious, smoky, folk-tinged material with her other band, Saint Low, and she sang these on Monday as WGC's support act. She also acted as the group's backing vocalist, and while she and the drummer added some slender femininity to the line-up, the other band members bore a passing resemblance to a family of cannibals who live in a shack in the deep South. From the podgy, Elvis-quiffed bassist to the scowling, bespectacled guitarist, they weren't the sort of bunch whose pick-up truck you'd be advised to prang.

Fisher himself looks less like a rock star than anyone else in the room. Peering through Buddy Holly glasses, he is a man-mountain in a plaid shirt, and he sings while standing with his hands in his pockets. He is funny and talkative in between songs, however, and he's even quite warm once you tune into his deadpan sense of humour. Before "Kite Flying", he stepped forward, past the microphone, to address the audience. "This is another really pleasant song about taking someone out into the desert and skinning them and using them as a kite," he said. He didn't sound miserable at all.

Toploader: Cardiff Uni (029 2023 0130), tonight; Oxford Brookes Uni (01865 741 1111), Tues; Bristol Uni (0870 444 4400), Weds; Portsmouth Pyramid (023 9235 8608), Fri

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