Birch Bay man fulfills dream
By Lowell Jackson
When he is not working as a groundskeeper at the Birch Bay Village golf course, Steve Brand spends spare hours entertaining men and women incarcerated in institutions throughout Western Washington. His prison ministry began three years ago when a gospel music group named Vision needed a pianist.
Brand, a professional rock ‘n roll drummer since the late ’60s, had been tinkering on the ivories a year or two before he was asked to join the Christian band.
“I knew I wanted to play the piano, so I started practicing with the group. It was really fun, pushing buttons to get strings, horns or whatever with the synthesizer. People would ask me what I was doing and I wasn’t really sure. The music thing didn’t make any sense to me.
“Then, all of a sudden, the keyboard became easy to play. I began to understand the chords and to play and improvise off them. It’s hard to explain, other than to say I felt it was like a gift from God.”
Mark Isenhour, a carpenter by trade, has been the leader of Vision for the past eight years. He sings and plays the guitar. Other members include two female singers, a bass player and a drummer.
“The gospel music we play is original, based on experiences of people we entertain in prisons and missions,” Brand said. “Mark sometimes writes the music on a shingle while doing his carpentry work.
“We play for two or three hours, pack up, and then go to another prison. We don’t plan anything. Mark is the preacher – does it when he feels he should – and talks for less than 15 minutes at the most.
“The reaction varies. Sometimes, from the moment we start playing, the prisoners will stand up, clap, and get into it like you’ve never seen. Other times, they’re sedate; they don’t have many visitors and are thrilled to have come and see them.”
Steve’s music career began out of high school when he purchased a set of drums from Brown’s Music in Bellingham for $700 that he earned as houseman at the Leopold Hotel. The next weekend, he started playing at the 1967 homecoming dance at Blaine high school. His musical career eventually evolved into playing country, rock ‘n roll and jazz in bars. “Traveling on the road was great fun as a member of a country band. We performed five nights a week until things dried up. We’d back the old timers like Tex Williams and Rose Maddux.”
Eventually he told his wife Lynda he was quitting this life. “I’ve had it,” he said. “I won’t play just for money. I don’t care what happens. When I first started music, I wanted to play in churches, but there wasn’t anything. Their music didn’t have an attraction to me, a rock ‘n roller.”
The next night his friend Mark Isenhour called. “Our pianist quit. Would you like to join us in our prison mission, playing gospel? There’s no money in it.”