GIG REVIEW: Daniel Champagne, Lefty’s Music Hall, Brisbane, 30/05/2021

Words Kate Lockyer {Kate Lockyer Music}

Last night, Lefty’s Music Hall was abuzz with music lovers for the last stop on Daniel Champagne’s Queensland tour. The Australian-born musical prodigy has brought his bluesy-folk roots style on the road once again, to the delight of his listeners. Champagne has been touring the world, including the US, Canada, New Zealand, Europe and Australia, for the better part of his career now, and has developed an international following thanks to his intimate shows and dedication to live performance. His life on the road is effortlessly tied into his storytelling, turning relationships into adventures and longing into an open road. He will make you want to venture out and explore somewhere new, or maybe remind you to pay that visit to your hometown.

The intimate venue of Lefty’s was the perfect setting for Champagne’s show. Emerging onstage, he draws you in not with brash stage presence but a complete sincerity and focus on the music he is making. He starts by strumming his guitar, then tapping the body of it. His Cole Clark gets a workout every time he plays, the scratch of his pick across the soundboard beginning the song with a raw energy while his other hand begins to play. The one-handed riff on the fretboard floors us. Then a single note, sustained, his voice soaring up to the second floor of Lefty’s where I stand, overlooking the atmosphere of the room. He plays a rhythm across the whole guitar. A subdued accompaniment, a strum, then a few carefully placed notes, alongside rapped knuckles on the neck and body of the guitar. The lyrics of That’s Why I Still Chase the Sky are a perfect introduction to his show, full of dreams and wanderlust – “I still feel like a child / staring at his first midnight sky”. The song finishes with a quickening percussion, then the beat fades out as Champagne strums the strings above the nut on the headstock, creating an awfully brilliant dissonance.

He introduces the next song as he tells us of his first tour in Canada, where he wrote a whole album’s worth of songs at a farmhouse in Saskatoon while he was snowed in. It’s called Home to Me – the only song he remembers from the farmhouse, and he says he tries to play it each night. His songs are bittersweet, this one a narrative of love and longing, and Champagne puts his heart on his sleeve to truly capture his listener. “I’m not always gonna be around / but you’ll always be home to me”, he sings, playing a gentle harmony on the guitar.

Champagne has turned guitar tuning into an art, seeing as he changes tunings so often. He starts the next song with a dizzying melody, using a scale to determine the pitching no doubt, because he tunes the guitar as he plays. He plays the introductory riff of Supernova with both hands on the fretboard, like some kind of wizard. Then, a pattern, short chords in one hand while Champagne starts a beat on the body of the guitar, first tapping the top, then the soundboard, then the bottom. His hands are mesmerising to watch. Pulling the notes across the strings with one hand, it’s nothing short of magic. Supernova starts with him drawing a picture of his failing relationship: “everybody throws their hearts down / like we’re only just playing / like we don’t know where this ends / or like the future’s already been written in the night sky”, and the song builds in momentum to the chorus, where the distinctive rhythm complements the lyrics, evoking the explosion of a real supernova. Every artistic choice he makes in this song pulls us further into his world. The pauses, the dissonances, the immaculate control of the rhythm and tempo, all the mark of a master craftsman.

Once again retuning, Champagne tells of his favourite song that he’s written, when he met a couple in an airport and immediately became friends with them. He ended up playing at their wedding and later wrote a song about their story of breaking up and getting back together in different places across the world. Back to Nova Scotia is my favourite song of his as well, bursting with intoxicating imagery of a relationship falling apart and coming back together between airports, nostalgic melodies and a tragic love. He begins with a flamenco-style scale as he retunes, making it looks effortless as his finger fly across the guitar. Then, a reflective progression of chords, and he begins to sing, with an emotion in every word. The mood is heightened in the chorus, as Champagne peels back the layers of guitar to simple strumming, “I just spent the whole night, thinking bout my whole life, thinking how I can’t find a reason to stay”. By the last few lines, singing “thinking that maybe we’re both insane”, he lowers the volume, but not the intensity.

Next, Champagne plays a brand-new instrumental piece, that he says is written for his old guitar teacher Dave. He says that while the gigs went missing, he went back to where his folks live on a farm near Bega in New South Wales and started playing jam sessions at Dave’s with some of his other old students, and it was during this time that he wrote this song, called The Pursuit. It’s moody, playing up and down in a minor key with two hands on the fretboards at a breakneck pace – it’s easy to imagine that a pursuit is playing out along the guitar strings. By the end, heplays a series of chords, but being Daniel Champagne, there had to be a unique way to do it. The last part of the song he plays by moving his capo up and down the strings as he plays the chords.

Heart-Shaped Tattoo, his next song, is the song that really stuck in my head the first time I saw him play several years ago. I fell in love with the lyrics “There’s stars in the movies, there’s stars in the skies / There’s stars on the boulevard and there’s stars in your eyes”, a testament to the vivid imagery Champagne uses. His devotion follows her tattoo through the seasons, and his unique guitar style provides an indulgent musical counterpart to the story. As beautiful and touching as this song is, apparently it inspired an interesting decision for a security guard at a venue in New Zealand that Champagne had played at for a number of years. He says that he got to know the security guard that worked there, and on one trip the seccy said he had something to show him, before pulling down his pants to reveal a big tattoo of a heart on his butt cheek. Champagne says he asked him why, and he replied “Can’t even remember!”.

A frenzied flurry of notes introduces his cover of – of all things – a Nirvana classic. In between tuning, he plays the iconic riff, and the audience is immediately in anticipation of the song. He says he learned the song when he was part of the 27 Club tribute show in Melbourne. Kurt Cobain was one of a number of musicians that died tragically at the age of 27, but Champagne does his song, Come as You Are, justice. Clearly a very different, acoustic version of the song, but no less haunting.

The next set starts out the same way as the first, with an impassioned note sung, capturing everyone’s attention once again. The Nightingale is an old song of Champagne’s, one of the first he wrote, but never less touching each time you hear it. He is in step with the tune, moving his feet in every song as he plays. “When I told you I was afraid to fall / Really I was afraid to fly at all”, the lyrics are captivatingly earnest. In the last part of the song, he tunes the e string down, then back up, then down again, incorporating it into the riff that he plays. It really is a sight to see.

The next song is a new one, another sentimental fingerpicked melody called By the Time the Great Lakes Freeze. Champagne sings “Guess them changing winds have come again / The leaves are turning in Montreal” to a simple picked melody with a percussive tap. Many of his songs have lyrics that circle back in metaphors, and this is one of them – the theme of a highway pops up in each chorus, from “The highway in her soul, she’s always got to leave / By the time the great lakes freeze”, to There’s a highway in this soul, it would be crazy not to leave/ By the time the great lakes freeze”.

Fade to Black, Champagne’s cover of a groovy blues classic by Dire Straits, begins with another furious progression of notes as his fingers dance across the fretboard. He plays the guitar with his whole body, and with the whole body of the guitar. Champagne’s voice carries the soul of the music while his hands work wonders. It’s incomprehensible how doesn’t tear his fingers to shreds at one point, striking the strings furiously, before launching into another solo at a ridiculous tempo. Those who are precious about their guitars may be affronted with his technique, scraping and beating the guitar to within an inch of its life, but it’s truly mesmerising to watch the energy he puts into his guitar.

Champagne tells us that, understandably, he gets asked about his guitar quite a bit, and admits that when he first started playing, he would take his guitar back into the shop all the time to get it patched up. Then, one guitar-maker, Carl, made it his mission to make an indestructible guitar for him. His current guitar, he says, was made in 2015 and has played 1000 shows, which is almost unbelievable when you watch him play – when Champagne admitted to damaging his guitars a man behind me yelled, in a pretty accurate description, “Yeah mate, that’s because you’re punching it!”

If you’re missing someone, The Coast of New South Wales will really hit you with homesickness, in his heartfelt ode to all of the small things he misses about Australia. Champagne dedicated this song to his mother, and the others in the audience that were from that area, calling it “a love note to the place he comes from”. Even as he marvels at the great sights of America, he just wants to be back home, singing that “I’ve been thinking how the Mississippi sunrise / would look good shooting over some south pacific waves / and I know I should have tried calling you tonight / but you know you’re like this blood running through my veins”. The simple fingerstyle guitar set behind the melody reflects his sentimental mood and has an intimacy that makes you feel like the song is straight out of his diary.

Trying to Hold the Setting Sun is another stunning example of Champagne’s wanderlust-filled lyrics that pull you into another place and time – “We were bound to stay but we were born to run / Always trying to hold the setting sun”. His songs are truly those to fall in love to. It has a more energetic atmosphere to some of his other songs, this one starting with percussion, that is indescribable without watching it – if ever there was an artist you need to see live to understand, Champagne is it.

He introduces the next song as one of the greats, and says, not without a sense of humour, that if we know the lyrics and want to sing along, “don’t do it, ‘cause you might ruin it for everyone”, which makes us all laugh. Vincent is a favourite song of many, including myself, and so it was a treat to hear his rendition, filled with pauses that left us gasping for the next bar of music and the raw vocals that Champagne pulls off so well. Beginning with that well-known melody, picking the tune of “starry, starry”, he stops short at “night”, several times, leaving us at the end of our breath in waiting for the next line. His restraint in keeping the licks and fingerstyle exquisitely simple is gorgeous, conveying all the loneliness and heartbreak of the song.

Before Champagne plays his last song, he invites anyone who wants to, to play his guitar after the show, saying quite truthfully that “if I can’t break it, no one will”. The end of his set is Same Enemy, another of my favourites, a song that lingers long after you’ve heard it as you mull over enigmatic lyrics – “We never feel a thing until we’ve felt it all / They’re tattooed in our skin and written across our wall… All I could ever be is flying past my front door / And it’s the same enemy trying to keep our hearts from wanting more”. Again, we hear more of the percussion beaten out on his guitar, this time gentler, and delicate melodic progression framing the lyrics. Just in case we weren’t impressed enough, at the end of the song, as it fades to two notes played over again, room and song suspended, Champagne continues to sustain the magic as he lifts the guitar over his head and places it on the ground, all the while still playing those two notes. It’s only once the guitar is silent that we can all take a breath.

Daniel Champagne is a whirlwind of captivating storytelling, folk genius and exquisite musicianship onstage. The instrumental component of many of his songs are unbelievably intricate, and it can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve seen him play. It is guitar performance at its most innovative, using the entire body of the guitar to make music.

To keep up with Daniel Champagne, follow him below.


Leave a Reply