On a balmy Wednesday night, I’m at the iconic Wine Cellar on K’Road. I cut through the bar and walk into the dimly lit back room where Daniel Champagne is lying on his back, on the humble platform that passes for a stage. He’s strumming to himself and I’m the first one there – I have the odd sensation of being an intruder for a minute or two, but people start to trickle in and the spell is broken as he walks out, leaving his guitar behind.
The gig is seated, unlike the usual gigs I go to here. No awkward shuffling around tonight, which is just as well because Daniel’s music is so evocative and soulful we wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I know this as a return listener, and a quick chat with a few other people around me confirms that I’m not the only one. The room is buzzing by the time I’ve been there for 30 minutes, halfway through a pint, but a hush falls over the crowd as Daniel takes the stage and picks up his guitar. He doesn’t have much in the way of pedals and equipment – the way he plays every part of the guitar is more than enough.
He starts off with That’s Why I Still Chase The Sky. Having seen him live before, it’s still impressive how — despite the rhythmic precision required for his percussive guitar strikes — nothing in his playing seems contrived. His voice is unbridled and as expansive as the sky he sings about chasing. During the few verses he sings throughout the night without the amplification of the microphone, his voice fills the room.
Although natural, he has a tendency towards some theatrics – from the exaggerated turns of the guitar tuning pegs up and down in The Nightingale to the delicately plucked and ethereally high guitar harmonics, often while cradling the guitar to his face. It’s a magnetic kind of quirkiness that gives him the ability to hold an entire room in suspense, waiting on his last chord.
He is a storyteller in song and on stage, conjuring up the image of a life perpetually on the road with “hellhounds on my tail” (The Great Dividing Range) and warnings of not always being around, the people he leaves behind (Home to Me).
While taking a break to tune his guitar, he tells us about the previous night’s concert in Hamilton that ended with him driving some strangers out of town, ostensibly to drink at their bar (which ended up being their house) and recounts a recent dream he had about his identical twin brother deciding to do Bollywood covers of his music and outstripping him in fame.
As well as his extensive body of solo work, Daniel sings a few covers – Fade to Black (Dire Straits), Come As You Are (Nirvana) and Vincent (Don McLean). The first, played unmistakably raunchy and bluesy, has the audience whooping and for a minute I feel like I’m in Nashville rather than Auckland. Tonight’s crowd is at times raucous, but he handles us with good humour, laughing at knocked over glasses and well-meaning comments shouted from the back.
A quick YouTube search is highly recommended to get the full visual effect of his unique playing style, but nothing is quite the same as seeing him live — fortunately for you, dear reader, he is touring the country for the next month. Details here.