Two nights back, Rachel and I watched Burning Ember, a documentary from Refuge 31 Films. It is, in short, wonderful and I want to thank Steve and his assistant (and my former student), Amy for sending it to us with this long overdue blogpost, an appreciation for perhaps the most underrated Canadian artist alive.
I first was introduced to Steve’s music around Valentine’s Day, 1999. It was (I think) my 3rd or 4th date with Rachel. Steve was in concert at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now part of Canadian Mennonite University) and this was her gift to me. A gift still freely and freshly given now for 16 years and many CDs later. Since that time, I have seen Steve in concert solo, with a band, and with other artists (notably, Mike Janzen, Carolyn Arends, and Bob Bennet) six more times. I have also crossed paths with him at Providence University College, where he would sometimes guest lecture. All this to say, I been fortunate to have experienced Steve (calling him Bell doesn’t feel right) and his music in different ways and arrangements and have had opportunity to match the music to the man in more informal settings. As a result, I have formed the following opinions.
(1) I wish this man was my friend. Corny, I know. It makes me sound like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney–completely star struck. But there is (I hope anyway) a deeper point. I have seen Steve in enough and varied settings to know that his “onstage persona” is his offstage person. And that person is wise, thoughtful, theologically rich (a rare gift for a Christian musician) and committed to his art. He is a person whose qualities, demeanour, and integrity simply calls forth the desire of friendship in all kinds of people. I imagine that they leave his friends better for having known him. A cliché, of course, and used in far too many situations where it simply isn’t true. But I can’t think of another way to say it.
(2) I can’t believe he’s not Michael W. Smith, Bruce Cockburn, or even James Taylor huge. Steve’s musical talent is simply amazing. Burning Ember takes us through Steve’s journey to expand his brand and market, taking his whole career into view, but also focusing on his latest project, Pilgrimage, a collection of classic and new music, performed by Steve and other musicians, including Malcolm Guite, Carolyn Arends, The Bros. Landreth, and Bob Bennet. I love this collection. My favorite track is “Theotokos” (a demo version is here). A hymn of praise to the most beautiful woman God ever created, thanking her for bearing the Son of God. Anyway, the irony and injustice embedded in the documentary is that while Pilgrimage celebrates a wonderful 25 year career, Steve is still touring in rented vans, playing for dozens far more often than hundreds. A legacy project that should be filling major concert halls across North America is the platform from which Steve again is looking to “break” into a larger audience. Steve is one of the best guitarists currently performing and a poet and songwriter of the first order. He easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the singer/songwriter greats of this and earlier generations: Bruce Cockburn and James Taylor. He deserves to be as celebrated an artist in the Christian music scene as MWS. It’s wrong that he’s not.
(3) His fans are blessed by the fact that he isn’t as huge as his talent merits. It is to our benefit that Steve is not as big as he deserves to be, for it means that more often than not, his concerts are intimate and inviting and he remains accessible. If you write him, odds are he’ll write you back and not just the “signed-by-a-computer 8X10” write you back, either. This is Burning Ember’s double irony. Steve should be a more celebrated, better known artist than he is; that he isn’t has forged deep connections to his music among his fans, connections that sometimes can become personal.
So, Steve, thanks for enriching my life with your songs over the last 16 years. I am grateful. And, “Remember that time when you did that show with Carolyn and Bob at Steinbach Mennonite? That was so awesome!”