It was a case of slender evolution as Danny & the Champions of the World set about crowning their activities of 2017. A year when a new album rose from the embers of creative freedom and a tour rolled around the country with a near total domination of fresh material. It has also been a year where a familiar face convened behind the keyboards and faces that are even more familiar set about re-creating an excitement never short of uplifting inspiration. Danny Wilson will forever be the humble front person of a band that has cracked the code of giving an exhilarating live experience. An Oxford gig courtesy of Empty Rooms Promotions on a non-school night is as good a guarantee as you’re likely to get for a top show and a packed Bullingdon rocked passionately until time came to pass the baton onto the disco kids.
Friday curfew gigs can work in different ways. An early finish can benefit the long distance travellers and a band can be more focussed on delivering the goods, but you have to be on your toes to catch the support act. This is especially true when new kids on the block trio William the Conqueror are on the bill. Maybe this description is more suitable for the recording entity rather than its creator Ruarri Joseph, with his varied recent history of searching for a secure footing in the music world. Accolades are raining in for this band, especially on the back of their debut summer release PROUD DISTURBER OF THE PEACE, and a brief thirty minutes catching them live backed up this promise wholeheartedly.
Starting off with ‘Pedestals’ from the new record, Ruarri displayed a classy assured on-stage persona ensuring his guitar-fuelled semi rock vibes flickered brightly within a tuned-in venue sound system. Alongside bassist Naomi Holmes and drummer Harry Harding, he focussed heavily on the record, as you would expect, generally using the slot as a showcase for material such as the excellent 'In My Dreams' and 'Cold Ontario' rather than revealing more about him as an artist. This will come later, but a run of support slots for their Loose Music label mates will do no harm in raising the profile of a band quickly living up to a pre-ordained tag of releasing one of the year’s 'most relevant’ albums.
On the stroke of 8:15, with no messing around, a six-piece Champs line up ignited into action. The mystery around the tour’s stage formation became known earlier in the evening when understanding that Free Jazz Geoff had only been available for certain southern shows. However, this evening was probably a first for the band with its horn section arriving mid-gig before seamlessly joining in on the old favourite ‘Every Beat of My Heart’.
On the topic of old favourites, the most pertinent moment of this show was the elimination of ‘Henry the Van’ and ‘Colonel and the King’ from the set list. However, the sun still rose on the following morning and in a sign of true evolution, a new monarch was crowned. ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ has been an instant favourite since appearing first on the 2013 STAY TRUE album. Frequently it has opened sets when the band are still hitting their stride. For this Oxford gig, it was the perfect show closer and fully embraced by a vocally strong dedicated audience.
The BRILLIANT LIGHT record illuminated a release Friday in June this year and was acclaimed as the ‘soundtrack of the summer’ until the rain set in. Any illusion of this album getting the light touch live treatment was dismissed from the outset with the band dealing ‘Let the Water Wash Over You (Don't You Know)’, ‘Consider Me’ and ‘Never in the Moment’ before Danny had the first opportunity to greet the audience with the usual “alright” and “any questions?”
Subsequently, the new album commandeered around two-thirds of the set list and a stage time that edged into the period where the venue staff were on guard to clear the place for the arrival of the drum ‘n’ bass brigade. In line with many gigs over the years, there is often an album track that soars to new heights in the live arena and this evening that honour went to ‘Coley Point’. ‘Waiting for the Right Time’ and ‘You’ll Remember Me’ were two of the other new tracks to prosper in a first show seen dedicated to the new record.
The latter acted as the backdrop to the band introductions, not that the ‘dapper’ Chris Clarke, the master of the ‘ironing board of love’ Henry Senior Jr, and the ‘font of all knowledge’ Steve Brookes, needed much announcing. Apart from hailing from Armidale New South Wales, I can’t recall what Danny’s quip about Paul Lush was, but let’s just settle on ‘one of the finest lead guitarists in the land’. Free Jazz Geoff had previously had his own personal intro of ‘What took ya’, which just leaves Thomas Collison as the new keyboard player. Initially inaugurated by Danny as ‘TC’, he is far from a new guy on the circuit as fans of The Dreaming Spires, Don Gallardo and Hannah Rose Platt will concur. This incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist slotted into a Champs role with immaculate ease, often bringing cheerleading exuberance to his stellar playing.
While you expect a new album to feature prominently, it was surprising to see the previous record WHAT KIND OF LOVE only supply two tracks. However, one of the these was a clear candidate for the show’s stand out moment, with Danny commenting on the curfew reasons before launching into the now secure Champs dance classic ‘Clear Water’. On an evening where the music reigned supreme, there was one poignant moment when Danny returned to the stage solo to deliver the strong sentimental piece ‘Swift Street’. A song worthy of a decent introduction in less hurried circumstances.
So once again, Danny & the Champions of the World lived up to their brash name. Evolution or not, this was another classic performance from a band in perfect tune with their surroundings, audience, intent and motives. It was a case of the best of British, in a musical community where we are quite content to let our American cousins lead the way. On nights like this though, we fight back.