David Champagne finds another path to the spirit
David Champagne’s idea of gospel is not exactly what you’d call sacred. In place of impassioned calls to worship our Lord and savior, Champagne’s songs get down to life’s nitty-gritty. They’re not always pretty stories, either.
“Well, I got a girl pregnant when I was just 15” goes the opening line of “Oh Lord,” one of his own compositions.
Champagne, a longtime fixture on the local music scene with bands such as Shane Champagne, the Heygoods (with his wife, Katie Champagne), and Treat Her Right, calls this “agnostic gospel.”
That’s his clever shorthand for how many folks feel about gospel: They love its spirit and intensity but could do without its religious underpinnings. For Champagne, songs like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” embody that concept.
“To me everybody is an agnostic. Everybody questions some aspect of existence at some point,” Champagne says over coffee recently in Harvard Square, not far from his home in Allston. “I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but how to combine that with music?”
The notion was strong enough that it produced an entire new album titled “Agnostic Gospel,” featuring 12 songs Champagne wrote. To give it variety, he enlisted a who’s who of local folk talent to perform the material, singer-songwriters ranging from Laura Cortese and Dennis Brennan to Kris Delmhorst and Dietrich Strause. The backing musicians are a dream team of Boston roots luminaries, including Billy Beard, Dinty Child, and Kimon Kirk, who coproduced the album with Champagne.
He financed the project through a Kickstarter campaign that brought in close to $6,000 and a grant through Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund. Champagne, who will perform songs from “Agnostic Gospel” at Toad on Sunday night, raised enough money to produce the album on CD, as well as an accompanying hymnal with the lyrics.
Champagne’s parents were Presbyterians, but he wasn’t brought up in a particularly devout household. He first heard gospel, along with everything else, on the radio as a kid growing up in Kansas City. He initially consumed it through secondary sources like Aretha Franklin, Gram Parsons, and Ray Charles.
“I love a lot of old gospel music, but I was never the kind of artist who wanted to write an album in that genre,” says Champagne. “If you have an affinity with that kind of music but you can’t swallow the dogma that goes with it, agnostic gospel is for you.”
That rang true for Cortese, who plays fiddle and sings “Among the Stars” on the album.
“For a long time, I’ve felt like going to a concert is my equivalent of a church-like experience. It’s where I have the time and space to reflect on what’s going on in my life,” Cortese says. “When Dave started talking about agnostic gospel, I really connected to that idea. That’s what music is: It’s not a religion where you go to church every week, but we’re a strong community of people who are there for each other to confront these big life concepts. It really made a lot of sense to me.”
Not everyone who participated on the project was buying Champagne’s message, though. He says one singer wasn’t comfortable singing the original song he had picked out, fearing the message about losing one’s faith (even though “faith” turned out to be a woman’s name) wasn’t right for her.
Most of the songs on “Agnostic Gospel” confront down-and-out situations with a healthy sense of humor. They don’t specifically address religion or the omnipotent “He” that’s so part and parcel of traditional gospel, but they let us know that everything will be all right. It’s good-news music, as Mavis Staples likes to call her brand of gospel.
And as Champagne wrote on his Kickstarter proposal, “If you think you don’t like gospel music, we got somethin’ for ya.”
After resurrecting his celebrated shows at Symphony Hall with a return engagement last year, folk-blues icon Tom Rush will strike up the band again later his month. On Dec. 28, Rush will perform and host an evening at the hallowed music hall featuring the newly reunited Jim Kweskin Jug Band (with Kweskin, Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, and Bill Keith), along with Patty Larkin, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and Johnny Irion. Tickets are on sale at www.bso.org and 888-266-1200. . . . Ahead of her forthcoming sophomore album, which she’ll release in February, local singer-songwriter Amy Black is celebrating the release of her new EP. Black recorded “The Muscle Shoals Session” at the legendary FAME studio in the Alabama town that gave birth to soul classics by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Black will join fellow roots rocker Sarah Borges and a house band for “Sock It to Me: A Soulful Celebration of the Music of Muscle Shoals, Alabama” at Atwood’s Tavern on Sunday. The music starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $10. More info at www.atwoodstavern.com.