Steve Bell performs 14th WSO concert with dedication to his father
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This article was published 26/10/2019 (1192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg’s beloved troubadour Steve Bell’s latest concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra showcased the eternal ties that bind and the graceful power of his now vine-ripened artistry.
Friday night’s concert celebrated the Juno-award-winning Christian singer/songwriter/guitarist’s 30-year legacy as a solo artist, which officially launched with the release of his 1989 album Comfort My People.
The one-night-only WSO Special show titled “Steve Bell: The Beauty of the Infinite” is notably his 14th program with the WSO. His inaugural symphony orchestra concert became an ongoing, critically acclaimed series held on this same stage in November 2007 that has since borne fruit with 30 (and counting) subsequent concerts held throughout North America, including Toronto’s Massey Hall.
Bell and his “merry men,” (the incomparable Winnipeg bassist Gilles Fournier, drummer/percussionist Daniel Roy and Steinbach’s pride, now Toronto-based pianist/arranger Mike Janzen, who also performed on Bell’s award-winning 2007 album Symphony Sessions) once again shared the stage during the fulsome, 150-minute (including intermission) concert led by WSO Associate Conductor Julian Pellicano, who marked his own maiden voyage leading Bell’s music.
The concert, including 14 classics as well as two brand new Janzen orchestrations, also paid tender homage to the artist’s father, Alfred Bell, who died July 31 at age 83. After striding onstage in darkness with his guitar, Bell dedicated his poignant solo “In Memoriam” to his father’s memory, choking up and even halting several times during his performance as a hushed crowd of 1,609 bore witness. From his heart to his dad, his singing felt emotionally raw, vulnerable, and real.
What utter joy to see Janzen return to the stage. He was sidelined since April 2016 with a life-altering concussion, and his welcomed re-appearance was a testament to the power of a resilient spirit through music. The first set opened with the world premiere arrangement of the title track from Comfort My People, with Bell’s fine initial guitar solo leading to lushly scored strings that gradually bled into the overall mix and elicited audible “wows” from the mixed generation crowd.
Janzen’s charts have always enthralled with his skillful orchestrations that never compete with, but only amplify, Bell’s soulful artistry. But this latest work showed an even greater musical purity and streamlining of forces. His arrangement of “Good Friend” featured sparse piano introduction that sparkled like starlight.
Also a Juno award winner, Janzen’s stellar jazz piano chops were displayed in his first solo “Here by the Water,” as well as during a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields.” Several songs inspired by English poet/songwriter Malcolm Guite – who also performed with Bell in a prior WSO concert – were also included: “Keening for the Dawn” and “Descent.” The exotic “Deep Calls to Deep” that began with Fournier’s wonderfully rasping upright bass solo closed the evening as a fitting finale that pulsed with driving energy.
The more introspective program was Bell’s first “non-holiday themed” show in 10 years also featured several works that haven’t been heard for a while. One of those was the luminous instrumental number “Moon Over Birkenau,” composed by Bell after visiting Poland in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. It included haunting solos by Janzen, as well as WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig and principal cellist Yuri Hooker.
His infectiously joyful “Waiting for Aiden,” quickly became another highlight, as did a finger-snapping “Done Made My Vow” with listeners invited to warble along on the chorus. Another crowd-pleaser, “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” saw the entire crowd rising to their feet for an experience that felt equal parts concert and devotional worship service.
As expected, the musicians received a rousing standing ovation, leading to two encores: “Burning Ember,” which opened his first show back in 2007, and “Eventide” which served as gentle benediction for the audience, leading to another ovation.
Bell’s shows over the years have (understandably) grown more polished and even slick at times, while never quite capturing the magic of that first night so long ago. However, his latest musical offering now sets aside those wistful comparisons once and for all. Although the older and (even more) wise artist, ever still an engaging raconteur with a rapier wit, may no longer sprinkle “pixie dust” over his rapt listeners as he did back in 2007, he continues to guide listeners through a soulful journey of gratitude and wonder, while inviting us to sup from a goblet of lived experience like a fine, oaken-aged wine.