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Steve Bell in concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra DVD
Artist: Steve Bell 
Label: Signpost Music
Length: Seven songs, and short interviews, cover approximately 48 minutes. Bonus content consists of four segments (two music videos plus two short documentaries) that chronicle Bell’s involvement in alleviating poverty.
 
It’s not every artist that has their songs performed by a symphony orchestra. For Steve Bell, this honor of a lifetime was captured on DVD, when he and a small band played at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music in Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in High Definition and mixed in 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, this is the next best thing to being there.
 
As conductor Rei Hotada remembers it, neither artist or orchestra occupied the foreground with the other in the background. This is a collaborative effort where they played as one.
 
Much of the credit goes to pianist Mike Janzen, who did a superb job of orchestrating a selection of Bell’s best songs. He also shines on those moments when he takes a solo.
 
The arrangements bring new depth to compositions that were already poetic and beautiful. If you are not among the initiated, Bell is a singer/songwriter along the lines of fellow Canadian, Bruce Cockburn, whom Bell regards as an inspiration. It’s fitting that Bell’s cover of Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields” is included. The symphony adds majesty with brass that punctuates and strings that add delicacy. 
 
One minor drawback for some may be the apparent made-for-TV format. You cannot watch the concert without breaks between songs. Some songs may have been cut, which might be one reason for some of the interruptions. Most breaks have Bell, band members and others providing thoughtful reflections. Paul McCartney’s most recent concert DVD was also done with interviews and commentary between songs. This format has the advantage of adding interest and variety and makes watching a concert less tedious. I also like this because it lets me learn more about the artist and the performance.
 
You only get a little of the dialog and storytelling that Bell is known for during the concert. One delightful exception is the funny story that introduces “Even So.” Performing with an orchestra may have made it best to keeping the talking short.  
 
Of all the songs, the instrumental “Waiting for Aidan,” was ideally suited for orchestra arrangement since it sounds like a show tune. The symphony is broadly engaged here as it is throughout the performance. Again, Janzen deserves a lot of credit for this. 
 
This presentation is capped-off appropriately with “Wellspring/Holy Lord,” which sounds like something right out of Handel’s Messiah. The horns in particular give it that baroque sound. Think of the piccolo trumpet solo in “Penny Lane” by The Beatles and you get an idea of the style. Getting back to the Messiah analogy, it’s almost a wonder that the crowd didn’t rise to their feet. It’s a moving piece of vocals and music.
 
I’ve had limited exposure to classical music, but it’s not hard for me to applaud the artistry and excellence that you get to see as well as hear. Seeing it performed makes me appreciate the music more.
 
Michael Dalton
January 24, 2009
 

 
 
 
 
 
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