Calgary-born Steve Bell, who has lived most of his life in Winnipeg, is a 51-year-old Juno-winning singer-songwriter who is a Christian. As opposed to a Christian singer-songwriter. If you think that's just a bit of semantics, then you should know such signifiers matter to Bell.
"I want the music to stand or fall on the quality of the music. But at the end of the day, I am Christian and I'm certainly not trying to hide the fact," Bell, the son of Baptist preacher Alf Bell, who served as a prison chaplain at medium-security Drumheller Institution federal penitentiary in Alberta, told the Stouffville Sun-Tribune in Ontario last September.
Bell will be in concert, making his first appearance in Thompson in about 15 years, Feb. 20 at the Letkemann Theatre at R.D. Parker Collegiate in what is being billed as "an intimate evening of story and song." Tickets are $15 and the show is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
He first performed in Northern Manitoba in 1994 at a spring youth retreat at Simonhouse Bible Camp in Cranberry Portage.
Bell's concert visit is being sponsored by the Thompson Christian Council, made up of Advent Lutheran, Christian Centre Fellowship, Continental Mission (both Mennonite), First Baptist, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, St. James Anglican, St. John's United, St. Lawrence Roman Catholic, Salvation Army Thompson Corps and Thompson Pentecostal Assembly.
Tickets are available through any of those churches, as well as Nanny's Diner in the Westwood Shopping Mall. Tickets can also be purchased online through Signpost Music in Winnipeg by calling their box office toll-free at (800) 854-3499. Those tickets will be held at the door for pickup.
Bell typically travels every second weekend year-round and usually does three concerts on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Dave Zeglinski, of Signpost Music, and Bell's long-time manager, says, "We need three potential concerts in an area to plan a trip."
That formula is being followed with only a slight variation this month on Bell's solo concert tour through Northern Manitoba with Thompson being the last of the three stops on a Monday night. On Sunday, Feb. 19, Bell is at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in Flin Flon, and on Friday, Feb. 17, he is at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the archdiocesan seat for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, in The Pas.
In a slight departure from the norm, Saturday, Feb. 18 is a night off. Bell's sister, Faith, is married to Mennonite Brethren Pastor Randall Krahn of Cornerstone Community Church in Flin Flon and Evangelical Mennonite Church in neighbouring Creighton, Sask.
These days, Bell told the Thompson Citizen in a Jan. 27 telephone interview, he feels more drawn personally to liturgical forms of worship, in particular as manifested in Anglicanism, than the Baptist faith of his childhood. But that Bell's visit here should be the result of the largest joint ecumenical outreach effort on behalf of the churches of the Thompson Christian Council in years, seems entirely appropriate given Bell is something of an ecumenical modern day renaissance man himself.
Bell had planned on going to Brandon University after high school and major in its noted music program before becoming a high school band teacher himself, he told staff writer Sandra Bolan in the Stouffville Sun-Tribune interview last September. It wasn't meant to be. "Some people have bad eyesight. Others have (their) inner chemistry out of whack," Bell said of depression, which has affected his family, including himself.
"After suffering a panic attack one week before he was supposed to start university, Mr. Bell decided to take a year off to re-group and get a handle on his depression, then go back to school and carry on with his plan.
"During that year off he would pass the time by playing the bar circuit. What was supposed to be a year off from school, turned into 10 years."
After knocking around Winnipeg bars for years, first between 1979 and 1983 with the very secular and very popular harmony-based hometown trio of Elias, Schritt and Bell, featuring Tim Elias and John Schritt, as well as Bell, and then at a lower point later in the 1980s playing guitar in a country and western bar band, Bell, the somewhat nominal tobacco-smoking Christian, heard a call from God to walk away from the bar band grind. He did. Then and there.
Schritt soon moved into the studio business, initially as an assistant engineer with Wayne Finucan Productions. Along with his wife, Shirley, they purchased Finucan Productions in 1991 and changed the name to Channels Audio & Post Production, which remains a mainstay of recording and film post-production in Winnipeg.
Elias is currently on his "Too Much Info Tour 2012," playing banjo, mandolin and Nicaraguan guitar, among other instruments, in gigs in and around Winnipeg. In the years since Elias, Schritt and Bell, he's recorded over a hundred soundtracks, countless jingles and corporate themes.
While Bell said Jan. 27 he still sees Elias and Schritt around Winnipeg's fairly small and tight music scene from time to time, the only reunion of the folk trio in more than 23 years took place Nov. 17, 2006 onstage for two songs at a "special concert" of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra where Elias and Schritt joined Bell to perform "Jenny" and "The Wellspring."
While he stayed home in the late 1980s after the bar band scene to write music, and his wife, Nanci went back to work teaching, during what would become the most prolific six-month songwriting period of his career so far - Father Bob MacDougall, a Jesuit evangelical priest (yes, you read that correctly), who'd been the Catholic chaplain at Stony Mountain Institution, also a medium-security federal penitentiary when Steve's father had been the Protestant chaplain there after transferring to Manitoba from Drumheller, knocked on his door in Winnipeg one day and told Bell he should record a Christian album. MacDougall had known Bell since he was a teenager.
Bell, born a week before well-known Georgia Christian singer-songwriter Amy Grant, with all due respect to Grant and the genre, didn't quite see that as his musical future. Fortunately, neither did MacDougall, who wrote him a cheque to produce a run of 200 cassette tape copies. His debut album, Comfort My People, was released in 1989.
In 1997, Bell won a Juno award for best gospel album with Romantics & Mystics. He won in the same category in 2000 for Simple Songs. Since 1989 Bell has independently released 16 solo albums. His most recent album, Kindness, was released last February.
The digitization of music in a world where everyone seemingly wants, and can usually get, everything, be it movies or music, for free, has had a huge impact on his revenue stream, Bell told the Thompson Citizen, causing a drop from $80,000 to $5,000 in revenues in one case in just a single year from 2008 to 2009.
Zeglinski and Bell have had to revamp their business model completely, with Signpost Music releasing all of the artists they'd brought in only a few years earlier in order to focus exclusively on Bell's music now, and getting involved with IncarNATION Ministries, founded by David Jennings of Vancouver in 2004, to encourage supporters to become patrons of the arts.