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Champion Irreverence 

Costumed clan gets silly for Christmas

Goofy get-ups. Over-the-top musicianship. Silly lyrics. If this reads like a description of some heavy metal band, that's OK -- the Alternative Champs are spiritual kin to Spinal Tap. Whether prancing about in matching nurses' uniforms, performing the sax solo from Spandau Ballet's "True" on a kazoo or singing about Shaquille O'Neal's size-21 feet, the Champs deliver a cockeyed, irreverent sense of humor and plenty of musical in-jokes.

"There's something wrong with every song," says singer/guitarist Rick Randall. "Something's just not right, whether it's the subject matter, or maybe you have us singing a soul song, or it might have a way over-the-top guitar solo. We're not necessarily going for full-on, laugh-out-loud hilarity, just something no one else has done, regardless of what it takes."

So what can we expect from the Champs' upcoming Christmas show at the Visulite Theatre? "I was playing some Christmas songs yesterday while I was decorating the house, and I started playing them on the acoustic guitar. So that might be fun," says Randall. "Then again, I could also see us doing a German techno Christmas set. Maybe remix some Mannheim Steamroller."

The madness began 15 years ago when a few Charlotte musicians would get together to jam and make weird four-track songs at the Seventh Street home of drummer Dave Massi and singer/guitarist Mike Mitschele. All of them played in other bands, but together these Champs had a loose, informal quality that was missing from their other collaborations.

"The Champs was the sort of thing where there were no rules," Randall says. "It all happened very organically because you have a group of friends who all are musicians. So if you're hanging out, spending time together, you're apt to make up goofy or fun songs."

A prime example is "Squishy, My Lover," an off-hand ode to couples' baby-talk born during a soundcheck. The Champs recently filmed a music video of the ebullient power-pop track with their friend, local filmmaker Richard Wright.

Randall explains the song's genesis: "We were just setting up the microphones and Mike started singing, 'Squishy, squishy, squishy, my love.' He's really good at coming up with those vocal hooks of something no one would ever sing in public."

As much performers as musicians, the Champs are best when poking fun at rock star pretension. Yet it's also true that the members just like to dress up, no underlying meaning necessary. Every show explores a different sartorial theme. One time, the band recreated a mechanic's garage on stage, from the matching uniforms right down to the greasy phone and cash register.

The visual thing, says Randall, "started out one night when we were playing at a songwriter's showcase. We showed up in substitute-teacher sweaters -- you know, with fuzzy Christmas motifs on them. We played a song about the songwriter showcase -- it was sort of a 'We are the World' sort of thing, really anthemic. We brought the crowd up on stage to sing it and then left them there singing."

Though the Champs have been playing regularly for the past five years, it wasn't until last winter that the band finally recorded its debut, Welcome To Fort Awesome, released in August on Charlotte-based MoRisen Records. In September, the band played the MoRisen showcase at the annual CMJ music festival in Manhattan, and also appeared on a panel about bands with gimmicks, hosted by Nashville Pussy's Ruyter Suys.

"We were brain dead and hung over," Randall remembers. "Somehow I managed to say something about David Lee Roth's package. One of the kids was saying he was in a band and his singer didn't have a really good singing voice -- what should he do? I said, 'Well, if you look at David Lee Roth's package' -- I was going to say he was a great performer, but when I said package it got kinda ugly."

There's been something of a buzz emerging around the Champs, and Fort Awesome is climbing the CMJ's college radio charts. Still, Randall says the band doesn't have any plans for a big national tour.

"We're more of a songwriting band, and when we do our performance, it's a Performance. It's very important for us to keep it fresh and fun," he says. "We've toured in other bands. It's pretty depressing to play in, say, Tennessee, on a Tuesday night for two people and make $4. I'd rather be at home making up songs."

Alternative Champs play Visulite Theatre on Friday, Dec. 23, with McClintock G's and RenElvis. Doors at 9pm. See www.visulite.com for more details.

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