Halfway through his debut album, just before launching into the soulful “To Be Used, Buy You (I Just Want to Be a Good Man)”, Pastor Ville Champion took a moment to teach the younger band to sing. 37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland. He walks through melody progressions, interprets chorus repetitions, and performs foundational riffs before leading them through the song he performed several times throughout his life. This is exactly the kind of material that would be taken out of a typical live album, but after two nights of sessions, they refused to put any more music on the tapes. And yet, this bit of filler is revealing, as Champion emerges as a gentle, exuberant trainer who humbly passes along his wisdom. “It’s all easy,” he assures them. “There’s nothing complicated in that.” This brings you straight to the church, where Pastor Champion created music as a vehicle for a higher message.
That’s some mystery. While Champion declined to talk about the details of his life, we have a comprehensive profile of his upbringing in the Deep South and all the horrors that can happen. We do know that he moved to California, was involved in street gangs and possibly prostitution, survived, devoted his life to Jesus, and raised a family. He worked as a carpenter, but also toured extensively in churches and homes as a traveling preacher. In late 2010, he worked with the label. luca bopo to make a solo album, although it is unclear how committed he was to documenting his ministry on tape. The producers set up an analog recorder and invited small troupe members to participate; It’s not a Sunday morning recording, in other words, but rather a staged reenactment, which means it can feel staged at times, even a little harsh.
Still, it is a powerful showcase for his guitar work, his vocals, and his ministry. Champion plays rhythm guitar instead of lead and only rarely takes solos – as if he can draw too much attention to himself and turn away from God. Their cheeky, repetitive rhythms are based on secular blues, not dissimilar from the strains of the hill country in Mississippi or the electrified rock that emanates from northern factory towns. He jiggles and fingers as if he’s been collecting these songs all his life, learning a new trick here or a technique there, and he mixes it with a throaty, soulful baritone that’s astonishingly seventy. That’s tremendous for a man in the decade.
And the band, who hadn’t played together until they assembled for these sessions, followed him closely and made a joyful noise that echoes “Who Do Men Say I Am” and “Storm of Life (Stand by Me)”. The sound is particularly unsettling. His greatest ally, however, may be the church itself. “Talk to God” offers a lesson in how to energize a humble crowd, as Champion encourages the audience to sing along and shout at him. They hesitate like this at first, but become more animated as the song progresses, clapping and singing and pausing their announcements with heartfelt affirmations. By the time he winds up the song, the younger audience seems manifold.
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