Following a musician’s lead in a distracting season

For a good part of the concert, I felt sorry for the musicians.  It seemed as if they were playing in a dust storm of distractions: squawking children, chatty adults, buzzing amplifier chords.

But by the end of the evening, we had all, remarkably, been corralled into quiet, focused listening. It was as if a herd of bleating sheep had been patiently nudged out of their edginess and into a place of calm. Had the houselights not come up, I might have sat there contentedly until morning.

Since that was not a possibility, I did the next best thing and downloaded Steve Bell’s new album, Keening for the Dawn, from iTunes. It won’t be quite like hearing him and his fellow musicians live in concert, but the end result will be the same: his music always takes me to a place of thoughtful stillness.

I highly recommend Steve Bell’s new Advent-themed CD. And, from there, you might follow the trail to poet Malcolm Guite, whose lines of poetry wind throughout the music.

This is a gift, especially during the season of Advent, those precursor weeks leading to Christmas, to what Steve Bell calls the silly season and what I often think of as madness.

If you don’t know Steve Bell’s music, let me give a quick primer. He’s an award winning singer/songwriter with a couple of Junos to his name, as well as numerous other accolades (Western Music, Covenant, Prairie Music awards).

Winnipeg born, he’s the son of a Baptist pastor and prison chaplain. Steve Bell has travelled the world with his music and for humanitarian purposes.  Last December, I saw him in a concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where part of the proceeds were in support of a city charity.

He’s a tenor and a master guitarist. His lyrics are poetry but his storytelling often has a preacher’s point. I sometimes wonder if he might not be a modern-day prophet.

I am, obviously, a fan.

I’ve been listening to his music for a couple of decades, ever since I heard him play a benefit concert in Moncton. His other Advent-themed album, Feast of Seasons, is always the first Christmas music I play, sometimes digging it out in mid-November.

I slip the CD into my car stereo, preferring one man’s perspective to the commercialized cacophony of advertisements and Christmas pop that shreds the season before it even begins.

I seek the familiarity of his music because it is gentle on the ear, but sometimes cuts to the heart. This musician does not shy away from the hard stuff of life, which I appreciate even though I am often caught off guard by the juxtapositions he creates as he layers harmonious chords over sharp lyrics.

Consider these lines from the song, Refugee, about the infant Christ:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple

Or cozy in a crib beside the font

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

The guitar melody under these words reminds me of a children’s song. But the words, while about a child, would never soothe one to sleep as a bedtime story.

They come, originally, from a poem, also called Refugee, by British poet, Malcolm Guite, and are a reminder that the story of Christmas is no sentimental tale, although that is what we’ve largely made it out to be.

No, the story of Christmas, and the season of Advent, if we are really honest, is often more like the concert I attended last Sunday night. It’s a time of distractions and uncontrollable crowds, while we scramble after things we expect to work, except they don’t.  There is noise, when we want silence, and interruptions, when we most want to be speak.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my concerts — and the season of Christmas — to be something other than a perfect show. There’s less disappointment, and certainly more reality, when we face the truth that Christmas, like life, is so much more complex than a sentimental song or a perfectly decorated tree.

Undoubtedly, in this Advent season, like every one that has come before it, circumstances will demand that we relax our expectations and make more room for compromise. We should give in to this demand, if for no other reason than to expand our sense of comradeship with those travelling with us.

At least, that’s what occurred to me last Sunday night. At the beginning of the concert, I felt sorry for the musicians. By the end, I was grateful they persevered through the rough patches and soared through the smooth. Thanks to Steve Bell and his fellow guitarists, I’m little more prepared for the Christmas season.

Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears each Friday on newsprint in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.