CHRISTMAS came early this year for legions of Steve Bell's devoted fans Sunday night.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra featured the popular Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter as one of its two "special concerts" this year. Keening for the Dawn, inspired by Bell's 2012 CD release -- which recently earned him a 2013 Western Canadian Music Award -- promised to take listeners on a soulful journey through "Advent, Nativity and Epiphany."
But it also took the capacity mixed-generation crowd on a voyage into the Christian artist's own world, as he spun tales and anecdotes, quipped self-effacing jokes and presented a wholly engaging musical offering to his listeners that just can't seem to get enough of their charismatic hero.
The 140-minute concert (including intermission) was led by former WSO assistant conductor Rei Hotoda, who now has conducted all 27 of Bell's North American symphony concerts since first taking the baton for Bell's inaugural "symphony series" WSO debut in November 2006.
Apart from Bell's always entertaining wit and wonderful raconteur skills, what makes these shows really sing is the consummate musicianship of his three longtime band members: bass player Gilles Fournier, drummer/percussionist Daniel Roy and pianist Mike Janzen, whose brilliant arrangements never cease to amaze with their intricate, imaginative orchestrations.
After a Bell hit the stage with a simple "Thanks for coming," the 14-selection program kicked off with Oracles from the new CD, its sense of mystery underscored by stage smoke and impressive lighting effects. Burning Ember proved an early audience hit, while evoking memories of his first WSO appearance. Describing his sheer joy performing the piece seven years ago, while adding that the heartwarming experience has become one of his top two career highlights, was touching.
Keening for the Dawn's intriguing, opening pointillist winds became a foil for Bell's golden tenor voice that wailed and harmonized with Janzen's vocals during the chorus in anticipation of the coming light.
Another evocative highlight was In the Bleak Midwinter, based on a poem by 19th-century English writer Christina Rossetti, rendered even more haunting by Bell's simple guitar and vocal introduction. In fact, more of these quieter moments would have been welcomed. Hearing him perform solo, at least briefly, brought greater contrast and intimacy to the evening -- in the spirit of seasonal "withdrawal" from worldly cares and woes mentioned by the musician during the song's introduction.
However, Peace Be Unto You, based on Hebrew prayer, did provide more of this sense of repose, with Bell sensitively accompanied by concertmaster Gwen Hoebig and principal violist Daniel Scholz, who took turns weaving their instrumental melody and countermelodies throughout his fluid vocal/guitar line.
Even holiday revellers sometimes need a break, and the program veered temporarily from seasonal devotion to funky chimney sweeps. Janzen's electrifying Chim Chim Cher-ee, from Mary Poppins, showcased his own raspy vocals, evoking a young Tom Waits and dazzling jazz piano chops, providing a taste (start counting the sleeps) of more to come when he performs his own WSO show next fall.
Many moons have passed since Bell's first WSO symphony show. Over the years, he has resisted any temptation to fall into formulaic patterns or rote, appearing even more confident and at ease sharing his music in this particular way. As the reviewer of that very first concert -- who remembers it like yesterday -- the metaphorical, magical "pixie dust" Bell vows he felt seven years ago, indeed, still falls.
As expected, the crowd leapt to their feet in a standing ovation, leading to three encores: Holy Lord, Dark Night of the Soul and the perfectly chosen Silent Night, with the crowd's voices rising in song.