How do you encapsulate a 25 year career? How do you celebrate a quarter of a century in music? In Steve Bell’s case it was a surprise gift, a CD of his songs recorded by some of his musical friends.
He liked the gift so much he included it in his latest album, Pilgrimage, a four disc set that covers his career from his first album, released in 1989 to a collection of new songs included in the package. In a way Pilgrimage is four different albums rolled into one, starting with that new material that Steve he has been showcasing in concerts across Canada this fall. It’s new, but it is also vintage Steve Bell, an interweaving of guitar and voice with some thoughtful lyrics.
The second disc Steve calls “Unadorned.” It’s just voice and guitar, renditions of previously recorded tunes as chosen by his fans (with Steve having the last say). It’s “Unadorned,” Steve says, because everyone else calls such records “Unplugged.” He wanted to be different.
The third record is the tribute disc, titled “In Good Company.” Some of his closest musician friends, such as Carolyn Arends, Jacob Moon, Bob Bennett and Glen Soderholm each took a favourite Steve Bell tune and gave it their interpretation. If I had a complaint about this particular disc it would be that Steve’s musical friends all seem to be singer-songwriters with a similar affinity for the material. The record is good, but the rocker in me wonders how a rock band would have interpreted some of these songs.
The final disc in Pilgrimage is “Landscapes.” On the one the original recordings of some of Steve’s best-known tunes are reproduced with the vocal track removed. This provides a new sonic interpretation of familiar songs that you can listen to in a new light – or add your own vocals for an at-home sing-a-long.
Capping off the set is an “essay” on Steve Bell’s career, written by Professor John Stackhouse Jr. of Regent College. Essay seems a bit of a misnomer to me – at 100 pages (admittedly more or less CD case sized pages) it is a bit longer than most school essays I ever wrote. The essay contains not only analysis but stories from Steve about songs and albums and his life, background material that didn’t make it into the liner notes when the original CDs were released. Perhaps my favourite of Steve’s compositions, one that is actually out of character for him, is the song “Somebody’s Gotta Pay” from the 2001 album Waiting for Aidan. The song isn’t included in Pilgrimage, but the story behind it is in the essay. It is just as powerful in print as when I first heard Steve tell it on stage.
I had thought about sharing some stories from my interviews with Steve, but then I realized that though I have talked with him on many occasions, I have never formally interviewed him for print or broadcast. That means our conversations are off-the-record, not to be shared without permission. What I can say is that Steve off-stage is pretty much the same as Steve on-stage: witty, engaging, caring and well read. When he tells me I should read material by a particular author I know I am going to enjoy the book.
In a way, Steve Bell is one of Canada’s hidden gems. He has toiled mostly in the Christian music scene, which in Canada has been and remains extremely small. There are musicians of less talent with more acclaim (and more money), but Steve has a calling to do what he does, and a trust in God that He will provide. That has worked for 25 years.