As a gig venue, Eastney Cellars is typical of an endangered but, hopefully, not dying breed. Originally a street corner pub in an area of Victorian terraced houses, over the years it has transformed into a music and comedy venue providing a regular outlet for dozens of local artists whilst periodically attracting acts with established national and international reputations. There is some seating but the majority of the 140 maximum audience stand and no one need be more than 30 foot or so away from the band. In all, an ideal venue for a band like Danny and the Champions who thrive on building a rapport with their audience.
Starting off the evening was Andrew Foster, a Portsmouth local who has been getting a lot of attention and 6Music airplay with his current album, Science and Magic. A songwriter with an acoustic guitar, but don’t be misled, his forte is building up a powerful and intricate sound with his array of effects pedals. My only regret in an enjoyable set was that his lyrics did not always carry over the electronics.
Danny’s regular support on this tour, as with several times in the past, is husand and wife duo Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou. Their sound, at first hearing, is deceptively simple, two acoustic guitars, an occasional harmonica and two voices. But what they do with those ingredients, especially the voices, adds an element of magic, visually as well as musically. They share a single mic, and we’re talking a standard Shure dynamic mic here, not a big studio condenser. The sight of their two faces pressed tightly together, one either side of the mic, adds real impact and new meaning to the concept of close harmony. Their guitar work is equally tightly interlinked, it’s Hannah-Lou that has the large bodied guitar, six regular strings but used to effectively add bass to Trevor’s fingerpicked accompaniments. They delivered a beautiful, calming prelude to the full-on soulful, bluesy Americana that was about to come from Danny and the Champs.
Danny and the Champions of the World has had a stable line up for a while now and it shows in the fine detail of their live show. A six piece band with three of the members each able to provide top-notch instrumental solos, Paul Lush on electric guitar, Henry Senior Jnr. on pedal steel and ‘Free Jazz’ Geoff Widdowson on keyboards and tenor sax might, in the wrong hands, prove a little unwieldy. Two strategies can avoid this, a strong band leader could impose something called discipline or the band members can reach a level of mutual knowledge and respect that allows them to seamlessly develop and interweave their parts. Only one of these produces the foot stomping, hand clapping, life affirming music that we heard for the next couple of hours. Sure, there are individual solos but you also hear instrumental passages where the three are playing together, blending harmonies and counterpoint melodies. It’s a tribute to the band’s sound man, Paul Casebury, that the three instruments could be distinguished with such clarity.
In front of these instrumental fireworks, Danny provides a steady rhythm on his acoustic guitar and gave us his characteristic high impact vocal performance, ably supported on backing vocals by bass man Chris Clarke, ‘Free Jazz’ Geoff also joining in when he didn’t have the sax to his lips. Alongside Chris’s bass line, drummer Steve Brookes completes the lineup.
Much of the material came from last year’s Stay True album, the set mimicking the album by opening with (Never Stop Building) That Space Rocket. As befits a band that thrives on live performance, songs were extended, not just by the instrumental breaks but by getting the audience involved, singing along, clapping and generally getting to feel integral to the performance, a feeling reinforced at one point by Geoff going walkabout with his sax. The band have captured this atmosphere wonderfully with a live album, Live Champs!, recorded in March this year, listening to it as I write, it’s a great memory jerker, I’ve just been reminded of how stunning Paul Lush’s guitar breaks can be. This double album has been available at gigs on the current tour and can now be ordered from Loose Records.
A handful of the songs in the Cellars set were previews of material for the next album. Once the tour is over, the band heads into the studio to start recording. Talking with a very happy Danny after the gig he reckoned most of the planned tracks were well advanced. Some songs had been written whilst on overseas tours earlier this year, he was particularly pleased that one had been written in Nashville. But also, he and Paul Lush had taken time out on the Swedish tour to write together. He admitted, previously, the first the rest of the band knew of some of the songs on Stay True was when he brought them into the studio. It had been a conscious decision to include Paul, and others, at a much earlier stage of the songwriting process for the new album. One effect he predicts is for the interplay of guitar, pedal steel and sax to figure more prominently. Previously, he’d often introduced a brass section for the more soul-inspired passages but Danny was keen to stress that wasn’t the way things were shaping up for the new album, backing vocalists were likely the only additions to figure. One thing that wouldn’t be likely to change, though, was that recordings would be made as ‘live’ as possible.
I’d usually finish a live review by urging you to get out and catch the next gig by a band that is this good live, but with recording coming up next week it might be a wee while before they head out on the road again. But remember, there’s always the Live Champs! album. Finally I must mention Ben, surely a Champs mega-fan, at The Cellars in the midst of a run of five consecutive Champs gigs. The following night, his wife was finally going to join him, I do hope she enjoyed it Ben.
Review by: Johnny Whalley