TOPS at Whelan’s, Dublin, on 21st November 2017
On Tuesday night, TOPS conducted an experiment: What do you need to make the tiny upstairs venue of Whelan’s feel like a summer stadium rock show in California in 1977?
Breezy Fleetwood Mac indebted pop rock? Check:
Over the course of their previous albums, TOPS combined retro AM radio with more traditional indie rock. New album ‘Sugar At The Gate’ sees the band confidently step towards the former, and is all the better for it. They bring the same aesthetic to the stage: high waisted jeans for everyone, vintage button down shirts for the guys while singer Jane Penny croons in a crewneck.
Kicking off with the glossy Cutlass Cruiser, the band are tight and energetic as slinky guitar lines coalesce into big choruses. The drums shine, keeping everything propelled at finger snapping pace. The addition of the flute, which Penny plays at intervals and gets a delighted reaction each time, is a minor masterstroke. Picking out solo melodies, its tone is refreshingly unfamiliar amongst the classic rock around it.
Similar is Dayglow Bimbo with its Broken Social Scene guitars, and the more sprawling menace of The Hollow Sounds of The Morning. Along with the flute, these elements save the band from being pure Fleetwood pastiche
Sweltering Heat? Check:
As always in Whelan’s upstairs stage, it got sweaty. The expansive sound that TOPS are mining in the latest phase of the band in fact feels a little too big for such a small space. Particularly true in the case of Penny, whose soulful vocals should soar over the music, but instead had to battle not to be drowned out. This is made stark on Hours Between, which has a pared-down guitar only intro, allowing Penny to slide up and down the octaves until we can hear the inflections in her falsetto.
Rampant indulgence in stimulants? Check:
“WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING” roared a member of the crowd, as Jane Penny sipped from a pint glass of an intriguing coloured liquid.
“Em, tea” came the apologetic response with a smile. “It’s Irish tea?”
In-band fighting, barely concealed factions and simmering resentment on stage? Emm…
Actually they are pretty inoffensive from the beginning: The endearingly odd pop band that opens the show transpires to be the rhythm section of TOPS. For the band themselves, they spend the gig grinning at each other and fist pumping conspiratorially in between songs.
Adoring fans? Check:
The crowd is surprisingly small and, for the most part, young. There are a few ’70s fashion copycats among the fresh faces. The reception is great though, steadily growing in energy levels until the huge reaction that greets the irresistible Way To Be Loved. TOPS’ calling card, with the guitar at its most insistent and Penny’s voice with the most attitude, the song has the crowd singing along to the chorus, before going crazy at the the drum breakdown and reprise.
Beautiful new single Petals and it’s warm retro chorus gets almost as excited a response. Returning for a brief encore with Outside, the band finally leave with the small core of fanatics pleading for another song. For a minute, Jane Penny stops and considers going back on, until she notices that drummer Riley Fleck has already disappeared. “Sorry, he’s gone. We’ll come back soon!” she says from the stage. Riley meanwhile is already behind the merch table, offloading T-shirts. Bet Stevie Nicks never had to do that.