Saturday, August 15, 2009

No Place Left to Fall - Bill Champlin

Champlin cuts loose on smokin’ R&B recording

No Place Left to Fall
Artist: Bill Champlin
Label: DreamMakers Music
Length: 13 tracks/68:15 minutes plus a documentary DVD containing over one hour of content

Bill Champlin may be the best known unknown artist. Until recently, I did not know that he was the singer on “Look Away,” the 1988 song recorded by Chicago that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. I also just discovered that he sang on “Lead Me On,” the title track on one of Amy Grant’s best recordings. For years I followed the Sons of Champlin—one of the best unknown groups—, but lost track of Champlin once the Sons began to wane. This was before Champlin joined Chicago in 1981, becoming an integral part of the band.

He has now left Chicago (August 2009) to devote himself to his solo career. He has released a series of recordings in the past, but No Place Left to Fall is his first in more than 10 years. One might assume this to be an extension of his work with the Sons and Chicago, but that assessment misses the mark.

There are some similarities; the voice is the same and at times the sound borrows from both groups, but what sets this apart is the R&B backbone heard throughout. Having been influenced at an early age by Lou Rawls and James Brown, Champlin is a soul man at heart. That makes this work closer to the Sons than Chicago, though there are obvious pop influences. That is especially true on the title track, which could easily follow “Look Away” to the top of the charts. Chicago has done an acoustic version of “Look Away” in concert, which has now been retired by the band. A new acoustic version is part of this CD.

You can’t help being reminded of Chicago on “Never Been Afraid,” which includes Chicago’s former lead singer, Peter Cetera. The song is a duet featuring Champlin and Michael English. The two join Cetera on background vocals, creating an all star trio.

With the exception of “Stone Cold Hollywood,” which has outstanding horns courtesy of Sante Fe and the Fat City Horns, the brass associated with Chicago and the Sons is left behind for simmering, smoldering R&B with nods to rock and pop. One of the highlights is Champlin’s organ and keyboard playing. He’s been doing this for more than 40 years and his organ solo on the opening “Total Control” and the funky, jamming intro on “Tuggin’ On Your Sleeve,” is hot. Whenever I hear great art like this, the world suddenly seems alive with possibilities and becomes a brighter place.

The musicianship is stellar, and the music is not hidden under a bushel of clutter or distortion; the notes shine with a crispness and clarity such as I rarely hear. Major kudos to the producers (Bill Champlin and Mark Eddinger) and Jason Corsaro and Mark Eddinger for making these mixes such a delight to hear.

Lest you fail to appreciate what you are hearing, the CD comes with a DVD that includes a brief overview of each song. I so appreciated Champlin’s humility on the personal vignettes. He even has a few words to say about Dylan and The Beatles. There is a bonus for Sons’ fans: a live 12-minute version of “Gold Mine,” recorded in Las Vegas.

This is a solid effort, and I know from communicating with Champlin, that he is already collecting songs for his next solo outing. For fans of the Sons, this is the next best thing to a new Sons’ recording. If you like R&B, this is your chance to hear Champlin cut loose on the music that is part of his being.
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