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.
Reverend Leon's Revival
Skylark Lounge, 58 Broadway
9 p.m. Thursday, December 13
$2 suggested donation; proceeds go to Street Reach, 303-722-7844
"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.
"Growing up, we went to black churches such as Church of Christ, and we were singing all the different gospel standards," says Ramsey. "When I was three years old, my dad used to put me up in front of 300 or 400 people, and I would lead 'Jesus Loves Me' or some other song. I think that gave me a real hunger for performing and leading people in worship."
As an adult, Ramsey worked to find an alternative approach to building a spiritual community. "I don't see Christianity within the same parameters as many Christians do," he says. "I was interested in starting a church that would be intellectually friendly, doubter friendly. I wanted something for folks who didn't want to be part of an institutional church, and something that would be more community-based and that wouldn't force a certain dogma or a certain doctrine."
Ramsey's musical aspirations for Reverend Leon's Revival have presented him with a different challenge: trying to connect with the type of crowd that believes Sundays are for recovering from Saturday night's hangover, not sitting in rows of pews. He believes his quest has been made easier in Denver, where audiences are already accustomed to biblically tinged performances. "We have had a lot of people that have trailblazed for us," he notes. "We are maybe a little more over the top, but there are the El Vez gospel shows that come here every year, and Slim Cessna does a lot of gospel stuff, as does 16 Horsepower. That helps us a lot."
The group does differ from many of its local contemporaries, however. For one thing, Reverend Leon's Revival is hiding nothing under a bushel basket: Though the band is campy, its message is undisguised. Ramsey also sees differences in the music itself.
"Where some bands start with either a rockabilly theme -- or where Slim Cessna starts with what you might call honky-tonk music and then moves out into gospel music or something else -- we are starting at a gospel base with an actual reverend as the frontman," he explains. "The songwriting then moves out into stuff that is more soulful or more rock-influenced. So we kind of reverse what a lot of these other folks have done."
Revered Leon does share with those acts a spirit of fun and mild irreverence -- as evidenced by Ramsey's current plan to expand the Revival franchise into the world of promotional items. "I think our first product will be church fans," he says. "Yeah, Reverend Leon hand fans, because they're cheap and I think we'll make some money off of them." Such playfulness has not always been embraced by the more pious members of the band's audience.
"The pulpit is a prop up there. It is not meant to carry the weight that I think a pulpit should carry," explains Ramsey. "This one guy who came to the show said, 'This is just a gimmick,' and he was talking to one of my good friends. Some of the people who come to the shows have known me since I was three, four, five years old. It would hurt me if we were doing something that reinforced stereotypes or didn't help people to kind of have a spiritual conversation with themselves."
None of this negativity has caused Ramsey to second-guess his calling to the band, though. "This helps my ministry in both of my churches, and if there are some other folks who have a problem with it, I'm not their minister, and they probably have problems with other ministers, too," he says. "I don't have the energy for that stuff. I don't have the time. I have two churches, a band and a wife. I don't need any more headaches."
If Ramsey does harbor a concern about the project, it's the possibility of the music being overshadowed by the message. "I hope we're not a gimmick act, or some kind of clowns. That, for me, would be the worst thing. Hopefully we will be perceived as a good band. Hopefully we will be perceived as artists first. Then I hope they glean something out of that that helps inform their own spiritual life."
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At this early stage, Reverend Leon's Revival has received a generally supportive response from sinners and saints alike. "The Lion's Lair is about as secular a crowd as you are going to get, and we had a great reaction," says Ramsey. "I think that once people get a gauge on the fact that we're equal parts show and substance -- and the substance is not quite as scary as it might initially hit their gut -- they will be comfortable. They will eventually realize that if one of them comes out to dance, I'm not going grab them and dunk them in water.
"People also need to either pack their own lunch or bring their own wine," he adds, "because I'm not going to be converting any water, and there are no fish and no loaves that will be multiplied."
In Ramsey's mind, it all comes down to one simple point, which he delivers with a calm and contented smile.
"I think God has a good sense of humor."