THE DECADE just passed saw Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Steve Bell develop a unique niche in Christian music. A move into some secular markets and an American distribution deal coincided with a 1998 Juno Award.
However, Bell at his best remains Bell concentrating on Christian music. His lyrics tend to be Scripture paraphrases or expressions of orthodox Christianity that transcend denominational boundaries. They are set to his tuneful, often rhythmic melodies. The icing on the cake is his beautifully evocative tenor voice.
Long-time fans, many of whom were introduced to Bell when his 1994 album Burning Ember was reviewed here, will find his latest releases a special treat. They see Bell move from a solo acoustic format to a four-piece band.
And what a band! As part of his tireless touring ministry, Bell’s spring 1999 tour of 12 cities boasted talented siblings Hugh and Fergus Marsh in tandem with drummer Greg Black. Material from Bell’s five studio albums is presented in two configurations. There is a 13-song album from various nights on the tour, as well as a 60-minute video from one particular concert in the Abbey Arts Centre in Abbottsford, B.C.
While Bell’s acoustic guitar playing is consistently lovely, and his voice has an especially poignant charm on starker pieces like Ready My Heart and Burning Ember, the full impact of his sidemen is most apparent on the more upbeat numbers.
Hugh Marsh is a genius on the electric violin. His tuneful, aggressive leads provide atmosphere and take jams to greater heights on such songs as Wings of an Eagle, Here by the Water, and Deep Calls to Deep. Just as he has done for fellow Canadian song crafters Bruce Cockburn and Loreena McKennitt, this veteran enriches the show without stealing it.
Fergus Marsh, meanwhile, is a busily competent bassist on some tracks, and he and Black lay down a meaty rhythm throughout. However, he truly shines when he moves over to the Chapman stick.
Steve Bell’s music has always been special. This unit, and this pair of releases, shows that Bell can offer rich musical forms that can stand up to any secular release on a musical level.
That it continues to be an elegant and eloquent expression of the Christian Gospel and the follower’s journey makes it a true treasure. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.