By Noah Hubbell
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Paul Ramsey has what his fellow men of the cloth might consider a strange definition of religious music.
"I think 'Sympathy for the Devil' is a gospel song," says the Denver-based minister and vocalist. "I would say maybe more than anybody else, the Rolling Stones are my biggest influence because, really, if you strip down a lot of their songs, they're gospel songs. I would also say that Tom Waits and Nick Cave are gospel acts. I definitely think so in the message. Some of our most influential theologians, like Cave and Bob Dylan, are extreme. I think that many times, the place that we find what I would call the God of Light is when we are investigating the dark crevices of our own selves."
It is the pursuit of both light and those shady crevices that has guided Ramsey's efforts as the founder and leader of Reverend Leon's Revival, a gospel-and-soul ensemble he formed in January of this year. Though Jagger and Richards are not found in the group's hymnals, this is not the kind of stuff one thinks of as church fare: Taking its cues from the religious revivals of the old South -- brimstone, hellfire and all -- the Revival transforms the conventions of spiritual tradition into something that resembles a vaudeville act as much as it does the Sunday sermon.
"With this alter ego, I can be as big of a ham, as much of a showperson, as I want," says Ramsey, who uses his middle name, Leon, as his stage handle. "When I first was describing the idea for the band to my wife, she just cringed. I realize that what we are doing is ludicrous. The fact that we're taking on this soulful music and doing all this stuff around it is funny. It's a way for me to be as ridiculous as I want to be and as overt about spirituality as I want to be. I can do all those things and just have a blast with it."
To Ramsey's amusement, the members of his two congregations -- he is an active minister at Mission Denver Christian Church in Englewood and South Broadway Christian Church in Denver -- are among those who have embraced Reverend Leon's music.
"I have a built-in fan base with these people in my church," he says. "This alter ego is all part of my personality, but it is not part of the personality I have in my churches. I think that my parishioners get a real kick out of seeing this character. My ego is going to be there either way. I realize that I have to have a healthy sense of self to do either thing that I am doing."
Ramsey is quick to point out, however, that Reverend Leon's Revival is not about preaching to the choir. Little by little, the band has found fans in the non-celestial realms of Denver's music culture, playing gigs at the Lion's Lair, the Gothic Theatre and Cafe Cero alongside artists like the Scam and honky-tonker Robbie Fulks. And because the Revival culls its members from both local rock-and-roll outfits and traditional church choirs and bands, the group is interested in creative as well as divine growth.
"As we continue, our songs will be almost equally balanced," Ramsey says. "We may end up with 60 percent gospel songs to 40 percent love-and-life songs that are not necessarily so overtly spiritual. I want to grow as a songwriter and as a singer without putting any limitations on that. I think in the beginning we had this vision of a gospel band, but I think that the longer we go, we'll move in other directions, also."
Reverend Leon is the brainchild of drummer Bill McConnell, a member of Ramsey's congregation at Mission Denver Christian Church who had a vision of the group while attending Ramsey's bachelor party. "Back in August of last year, we went out for karaoke, and Bill heard me sing some song," says Ramsey. "He instantly decided to start the band because I was a good karaoke singer. How ridiculous is that?"
The setting of that epiphany -- a bar -- seems weirdly appropriate, considering that the Revival's approach to religious music often reflects a dichotomy of sin and salvation. McConnell, who has spent time in the local music scene as manager of the Denver Gentlemen and as the original drummer for Twilight Motel, pursued his inspiration and began trying to recruit members. According to Ramsey, McConnell initially found that gospel was a tough sell.
"All of us thought Bill was full of malarkey when he first had the idea," recalls Ramsey, "but he's great at marketing the band and the image and at knowing the Denver scene." McConnell's networking eventually turned up band recruits Mark Yanowitz on bass (who replaced original bassist Eric Taylor); Paul Dubbs on piano, organ and saxophone; Mark Nelson on guitar; and new singer Tara Hughes. All three pen the tunes. Ramsey is responsible for delivering the band's fervent message, which, along with his fiery, comic presentation, has its roots in his upbringing in local houses of worship.