Music is the voice of the soul and deep down where the soul resides you’ll find Danny and the Champs pouring their heart into a live show. That show won’t be large, pretentious and full of superficial content. It will resonate with a fulfilling sound, spirited musicianship and a set of guys who passionately care about the music they create. The audience will buy into the simple ideals of Danny George Wilson and revel in the moment. Filters such as phones and reviews are mere superfluous to the air of connectivity , Contradictions aside, Danny and the Champions of the World continue to be the worst kept secret on the UK live music scene, reaching out to a loyal fan base, courting industry acclaim and maintaining the highest possible standards. This evening at The Donkey, just outside Leicester city centre, was not revolutionary, but pure Danny and the Champs staple and a firm reassurance why music will always rule in its live environment.
To the names of Ags Connolly, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou and The Dreaming Spires, you can add Dean Owens to the esteemed list that have had the honour of supporting Danny in a gig in my presence over the last few years. Like Danny, Dean is no newcomer to the circuit but nevertheless it is good to welcome him south of the border for a decent run of gigs as his music has so much to offer. This evening he took advantage of an extended forty minute opening set to share several of his songs, strongly leaning in the misery direction in contrast to the anticipated feel good Champs show. Dean had little problem holding most of a Friday night’s audience attention with an assured demeanour and standard of song to demand focus.
Dean’s excellent 2015 album INTO THE SEA provided a fruitful source for a fair chunk of the set list including ‘Valentine’s Day in New York’, ‘Evergreen’ and ‘Virginia Street’. The latter, a song mixing Glasgow and Kris Kristofferson, was announced as the new single with more than a nod to Bob Harris’s approval. Outside the latest record the strongest offerings were ‘The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’ and ‘Lost Time’, with the former being lifted from Dean’s 2012 cut CASH BACK: SONGS I LEARNED FROM JOHNNY CASH. The influences and style of Dean Owens are not too difficult to detect and ascertain, with the presiding overview that he interprets them successfully.
While inference of far from revolutionary was hinted at previously there was one significant change since I saw the band in Oxford last year. That Bullingdon show was one of my gigs of the year, right in the mix of their new album tour and forever remembered for the Free Jazz Geoff-led sax conga. However for the first time that can be recalled over the last few years, there was no Geoff or sax, replaced by the intriguing full blown addition of Hammond organ brought by a new Champ – Andy Fairclough. After the required necessary adjustment, enhanced soulful keys to the current Champs style played a major part and it will be interesting to see the level of impact on the band’s new album due out in the New Year.
While on the theme of the new record, one track was introduced by Danny, in the form of the Paul Lush penned ‘Never in the Moment’. A further innovation for the show was the limelight afforded to pedal steel player Henry Senior Jr with the opportunity to share a tune from his brand new instrumental album. PLATES OF MEAT is the inaugural release from the Maiden Voyage Recording Company, a project jointly launched by Danny and Del Day.
The majority of the show was a lesson in reassurance. Paul Lush persistently excelled on lead guitar while Chris Clarke steadied the ship on bass aligned with Steve Brookes supplying the driving percussion beat. Danny was just Danny, the grateful and humbled entertainer further buoyed by the recognition the band received from this year’s Americana awards. The sweaty, packed and earthy Donkey venue was fertile Champs ground with oodles of mutual appreciation in a heady and cramped atmosphere.
The set list was extensive, familiar and rich, with mainly upbeat dance friendly material. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ remains a personal favourite and a choice slice of Danny idealism. ‘Colonel and the King’ retains its extended infectious appeal and ‘Henry the Van’ will never be forgotten. Perhaps one song beginning to ripen as a live masterpiece is ‘Clear Water’, surely heading in the legendary direction of ‘Restless Feet’ and ‘Every Beat of My Heart’.
Any review of a Danny and the Champions of the World show should end with an invitation to personally seek out this live experience. Many Leicester folks did just that and opportunities in the future around the land are likely to be countless . Hopefully the same can be said of Dean Owens and more excursions south from his Edinburgh base. The quality of a live performer will rise to the top and the two artists on show this evening personify this assertion.