A shared enthusiasm for the writing and faith of British writer C.S. Lewis has led to a performing partnership that will be revived in Winnipeg Thursday night.
Call it the Chronicles of Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite, and the latest chapter in their journey unfolds at the West End Cultural Centre at 7:30 p.m.
Concert previewClick to Expand
Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite
● Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
● West End Cultural Centre
● Tickets: $31 at stevebell.com/events
Bell, 61, the two-time Juno Award winning singer-songwriter from the city, first met Guite, a poet, author, academic, Anglican priest and retired chaplain at Cambridge University, at a conference at Cambridge in 2010.
It focused on Lewis, who is famous for writing The Chronicles of Narnia series of novels during the 1950s, which were adapted into three films from 2005-10. He wrote many other novels, and also helped soothe British radio listeners during the Second World War with religious sermons that were broadcast while bombs fell on British cities.
Bell was invited to sing at the conference while Guite was the keynote speaker.
"When I heard him speak and do his poetry I was spellbound and basically ended up chasing him around like a puppy dog for the whole weekend," Bell says. "We realized there was an artistic kinship there and we became friends and I started writing a lot of music to his poems and there’s been a long, collaborative friendship ever since."
This is what Guite remembers from that fateful day.
"I like guitar music, but to be honest, I thought it was going to be a slightly naff, twee, sort of sentimental Christian music thing," he says of Bell’s appearance. "I get there and this guy is playing unbelievably good blues, reframing the psalms in a kind of blues way, and then he was playing Celtic stuff and I was just blown away, so I thought, I’ve got to find this guy."
Recollections of their first meeting reveal the foundation of a friendship that’s included Guite’s appearance on Bell’s 2014 album Pilgrimage and sharing the Centennial Concert Hall stage with Bell and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
The two are a good fit; Christianity is a core part of their lives and art, whether it’s Bell’s recordings and performances or Guite’s way of blending literature and art — much of which is secular — into theology.
"If I pay attention to any of his poems, melodies start forming pretty quick," Bell says.
Thursday’s show will include Bell on guitar and singing songs from his vast catalogue, alternating with Guite’s poetry. Bell’s latest album, 2021’s Wouldn’t You Love to Know?, also includes Guite’s poems and words of wisdom within its liner notes, which is like a small book complete with Roberta Landreth’s artwork, which earned a Juno nomination.
While Guite, 64, spent his childhood years attending boarding schools in England, he enjoyed his summers in Hamilton, where his father was a professor at McMaster University.
So like many young Canadians of the 1960s, Guite grew up listening to Canadian greats like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and the Band and can quote poetry from giants such as Coleridge and Wordsworth almost in the same breath as lyrics by Young or Bob Dylan.
While much of Guite’s poetry focuses on faith, he’s no one-trick pony. Among his recent works is one he’s performed with Bell titled My Poetry Is Jamming Your Machine.
"I’m a human being with a beating heart like anybody else. I know what it is to fall in love, I know what it is to have joy in a sunrise or a sunset," the priest says while enjoying a morning in Victoria Beach with Bell and friends.
Guite is part of a blues band in England, Mystery Train, and said he’ll even sing a tune or two Thursday night.
"Just occasionally, for contrast, Steve will hand me his guitar and I’ll play one of my own songs, though as I say to people, it’s like Michelangelo handing the brush to the house painter," he says. "I’m in awe of his playing."
While Guite has become a scholar of Lewis’s work and an enthusiast of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, he’s used his appearance — he has long hair and a bushy beard — to connect with a new generation of students who were more familiar with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.
"I was looking like this long before the Harry Potter films came out. I always liked waistcoats, I grow a beard and I smoke long pipes," he says.
"When the first years were arriving at our college — our college looks like Hogwarts — so I thought just for fun, because I knew that was the generation that would have grown up reading the books and would have just seen the first movie. I parked my motorcycle outside the gates and yelled, ‘First years this way.’
"I spent my whole life wanting to be Gandalf and ended up being Hagrid."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.