Photographs by Tyson Elder
Spirit of the West has been a staple of the Canadian music scene and strongly embedded in Canada’s west coast since their beginnings in the early 1980s. The CanCon legends annually sell out the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and have a cult following around the world.
Local band Carmanah opened up the Sunday evening show at Distrikt Nightclub with several new songs recently recorded on Saltspring Island. Even seasoned Carmanah fans hadn’t heard these songs before,which was a rare treat for everyone in attendance.
Spirit of the West took the stage, as they often do, with their high-energy single “Canadian Skye,” a song that has certainly made more than a few backpackers and travellers homesick in their day. Almost an ode to where they’ve come from.
It’s always amazing to see a band that spans generations of fans. From the kids in their 20s doing shots at the bar to the middle aged folks who got there early for a good spot at the front of the stage. Spirit of the West is certainly a band that parents and their kids can agree on. In fact, there were several families of fans in attendance.
The night was peppered with deeper cuts than a usual Spirit of the West concert. Songs like “Morning in the Bath Abbey” and “Wishing Line” stood out amongst the hit parade, but the crowd still sang along and knew every word.
Spirit of the West is a very energetic band, and play off each others’ energy as they perform. Often John Mann would lose himself dancing along with the band, as guest fiddle player Kendel Carson duelled with Tobin Frank’s accordion.
While the band smiled the whole night, you’d occasionally catch the odd stoic, somber gaze from a band member unsure of the future of Spirit of the West; a band of brothers for thirty years making music with the people they loved.
Late last year, John Mann revealed that he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. John battles onward, promising Spirit of the West fans that he would continue performing with the band as long as he was able. An ever present iPad assisting John with the lyrics and the addition of a second guitar player are the only real clues to his symptoms, as he still hits all the notes in the right spots, and is his usual carefree self onstage.
Noticeably absent was John’s storytelling about the origins of their songs; that was left up to bandmate Geoffrey Kelly. Recalling co-writing “If Venice is Sinking,” a song about John’s honeymoon in Venice and “Bone of Contention,” a song written about the downfall of Pee-wee Herman in the Nineties.
Spirit of the West closed their set with perennial Frosh week and St Patrick’s Day song, “Home for a Rest.” The crowd feverishly bounced up and down, singing along with the band. At venues like Vancouver’s Commodore, I’m sure the floor was like a trampoline when they band played this song.
As the band walked off stage the crowd roared. Chanting “John Mann! Johnn Mann! John Mann!” It wasn’t long before the band reappeared from behind the curtain of Distrikt Nightclub, all glowing with excitement for their encore.
Geoffrey Kelly reaches out to grab his microphone before the band was in place, and simply says, “John Mann is the greatest man I know.” Tears filled John’s eyes as he looked out to the sea of concert goers, but there was no time to be sad. John wiped his eyes and the band kicked into high gear for their final song “The Crawl“ with several audience members on stage.
The last thirty years for Spirit of the West has been one heck of a journey, and while the future might be uncertain, there is still a glimmer of hope out there. The band is playing Massey Hall in Toronto for the first time ever this June. If you get a chance to see them, we here at YYJ Rocktographers highly recommend it.