october 2011

Grady Champion: Wit, conscience and a big heart…

Packin’ A Mean Punch

One-time boxer Grady Champion has a knockout new album

By David McGee

Grady Champion
GSM Music Group

Because he’s been a boxer in his time, Grady Champion has surely become used to his music being described as having a knockout punch or TKO potential, or, no doubt, on some of his soulful ballads, as having the ability to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Guess what? All of this is true, and you don’t even have to get far into his new album, Dreamin’, to find out this much about the 2010 winner of the International Blues Challenge. With a band including Greg Wright on guitar (he played on Michael Jackson’s 1984 Victory tour), Buthel on bass, Christopher Troy on keyboards and drums, and Champion’s versatile co-producer Zac Harmon on guitar, drums and lead and background vocals, plus former Prince backing vocalist Sue Ann Carwell, Champion demonstrates why the IBC was so swayed as to award him its 2010 belt, if you will. Blessed with a warm, seasoned voice (he has a Mellencamp grittiness at times) and impressive lung power, Champion knows how to express himself lyrically too—he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 10 tunes and, to add fuel to the fire, he also plays a forthright harmonica. With his band, his voice and his words, Champion makes an indelible impression as an artist with wit, conscience and a big heart who can no more be confined to the blues world than he can to the roots rock universe.

Grady Champion’s ‘Weight of the World,’ the showcase song from his new album, Dreamin’

In the classic grinding blues ballad “Thank You For Giving Me The Blues,” with Zac Harmon wailing on guitar like the second coming of Albert King, Champion growls what is not a sorrowful song but rather a tribute to the blues for its life affirming properties—he even quotes a section of the Christian child’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” in thanking the man upstairs for laying the blues on him. A sensible bit of philosophizing infuses the frisky gospel shuffle “Laugh, Smile, Cry Sometimes.” With his own harp romping behind him and both a gospel chorus and Troy's church organ shadowing him, Champion adopts a smoother tone, nigh on to Sam Cooke-like, in reminding us that life is a combination of the bitter and the sweet (and again invokes the Christian child’s prayer in thanking the Lord for another day on earth) in a joyous affirmation of each new day's blessings. Indeed, the spiritual base of Champion’s ethos is the foundation of the album’s most moving song, the soothing testimonial of “Weight Of the World,” a reflective, sensitive message with a pulsating rhythm, silky gospel chorus, somber organ and earnest, harmonized choruses asserting the singer’s willingness to take on another’s struggles as his own—“you heart is heavy/but I would carry it if you would let me/I would carry the weight of the world for you, babe/we all need somebody, girl/somebody to lean, somebody to carry the weight of the world”—with the sentiments further underscored by a rich, crying guitar solo that may remind some of the galvanizing guitar solo Eric Clapton crafted in making Blind Faith’s “In The Presence of the Lord” a monumental statement in that band’s brief history.

‘Everybody got a Joe in their life’: Grady Champion takes on ‘Hey Joe’ at El Paso’s Kings X club, June 22, 2011

Make no mistake, though: Grady Champion knows how to have a good time, especially when it involves a woman. He kicks off the proceedings with a boisterous, strutting blues right outta Chicago, “My Rooster’s King,” and just like Willie Dixon in “Little Red Rooster,” Champion’s rooster is not exactly poultry and it’s looking for some action, as you might guess from the artist’s bruising vocal and wailing harmonica, while the band stomps mercilessly in his support. Sheer physical desire is the driving force adding fuel to the fury of “Same Train,” a track burning up from the force of the sizzling guitar, the furious percussion and Champion’s searing harmonica and fevered vocalizing as he tries to contain himself before his baby returns to the fold. Similarly, but with more bounce and good-time spirit, “Make That Monkey Jump” has an Elvin Bishop feel in its funky arrangement and in Champion’s delivery of frank directives to the distaff side to do those thangs that get a rise out of a man. Playing up the comic potential of his scenarios as much with his rollicking harp accompaniment as he does with his suggestive vocalizing, Champion shows off a light-hearted side that’s every bit as winning as that of the seeker in other songs, trying to move on up a little higher. On Dreamin’, Champion gets to where he’s going in fine style, but this is only the early leg of a longer journey that promises to be even more fascinating as the artist in question logs more mileage in the real world.

Grady Champion’s Dreamin’ is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024