Gig review: Champs @ The Castle Hotel, Manchester

In a dingy backroom of the Castle Hotel a small waiting crowd parts to let two skinny young men pass.

With a hint of awkward anxiousness they take to the stage, pick up their guitars and begin to sing.

Formed in 2012 the multi-instrumentalist pop duo, comprised of siblings Michael and David Champion, hails from the Isle of Wight and there is something of that strange and insular place about their intricate and haunting falsetto harmonies that transfixed our small and eclectic audience.

Standing on a wooden raised platform tuning their electric guitars and searching for lost plectrums the brothers looked tired; understandably as they are reaching the end of their European gigs, having played their way through Germany, Belgium and France before arriving in Manchester.

The boys have been busy touring their new album Vamala, released on February 23. Over an instrument change Michael Champion told us that ‘Vamala’ is the word used by Isle of Wight fishermen when ‘there’s a storm coming’.

If the shadows under their eyes confessed to a long journey, their music remained uplifting and wonderfully melodic – Simon and Garfunkel-esque, alternating between the synth-pop rock of singles.

Desire and title-track Vamala, and the poetic rhapsody of their opening number Forever Be Upstanding at the Door, picked out folk-style on guitar.

For the set list they wove Vamala together with their 2014 debut album Down Like Gold, seamlessly slipping from new beats and different sounds to favourites such as St. Peter’s and Savannah without seeming to diminish their enthusiasm for the music.

GUITAR HEROES: Brothers Michael and David tear through their set at The Castle

The odd sound glitch was more than compensated by the experience of unpretentious intimacy. There were moments of humour – the final song, a rendition of their first ever single, My Spirit is Broken, had to be begun twice after Michael’s guitar strap slipped off – ‘My strap is broken!’ shouted an audience member to general amusement.   

A group of around 50 people watched the brothers play, hardly a stadium gig but no let down either.

‘We thought this tour would just be practice’ David Champion admitted as they thanked us for coming, sounding endearingly self-deprecating as he told us the duo anticipated playing to empty venues.

The audience themselves were a strange contrast to the demographic most often seen at hipster electronic pop gigs in Manchester, reflecting the wider appeal of Champ’s music, which is reminiscent of a melancholy Sparks – encapsulating modern pop-folk electronica.

The couple next to me must have been in their late 50s but stood with eyes closed in absolute rapture arms wrapped around each other, knowing every word to every song. A classic Manchester geezer in peaked cap swayed ecstatically at the front alone, occasionally turning back to the rest of us grinning hugely to confirm our mutual appreciation.

Champs have already been played on Xfm, nominated for the ‘Best Video’ prize at the International Music Video Festival and given 4/5 stars by the Guardian for the Vamala album. But despite their enormous talent and fantastic sound, they are still relatively unknown.  

However it’s inevitable that they will eventually become darlings of the indie pop scene. They’re just too good not to be. Their talent far eclipses the likes of mainstream Bastille and Ed Sheeran.

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