Pride Of Taranna Series Pt. 22: She Said Boom #1: Spirit Of The West – Old Material 1984-1986
When I brought this home, my lovely wife said “that’ll be a throwback to university party days, right on.” In some ways she was correct and, in others, this disc points out a nascent, slightly different SOTW…
I thought this from Amazon summed it up:
This aptly titled compilation captures the earliest and most traditional work of Vancouver folk-rockers Spirit of the West–complete with a hammed-up Scots accents and mist-swept tales of highland laddies and seafaring adventurers. It’s the sound of a group–at this point a trio featuring principal singer-guitarists Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann with multi-instrumentalist J. Knutson–finding its feet while betraying an obvious creative debt to old-world folk explorers such as Planxty and Fairport Convention. But then, the latter influence is hardly a hidden one considering SOTW take a crack at Richard Thompson’s “Time to Ring Some Changes.” Thin and unnecessarily glossy production mixes uneasily with the band’s supply of acoustic guitars on the disc’s first half, though “Down on the Dole” and “John Goodman” are a good indicator of both the strident politics and bright-eyed pop of later albums like Save This House. The album’s back half features a so-so live recording, with Kelly laying some fluid tin whistle over increasingly rocking arrangements. It would prove to be the cusp of success for a band with more to offer in future years. –Kieran Grant
More to offer? Hahaha SO MUCH MORE, Kieran!
I love that this CD is listed as Side One and Two, like the CD thinks it’s an LP… Side One, the studio stuff, was produced by Barney Bentall. Side Two was produced, engineered and mixed by Ron Obvious, recorded live at the Vancouver East Cultural Center in 1986.
All tracks here are brilliant. Interesting to hear SOTW as a trio.
Hit It Or Quit It? HIT!
This was destined to be bittersweet. The last time I saw Spirit of the West, lead singer John Mann had recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. We went, in part, expecting it to be our last chance to see the band. But that night, they promised they’d be back on a proper farewell tour. A year and a half later, here we are. Within minutes of tickets going on sale, they were snapped up and I got one of the last tables for four available. Not the best seats I’ve ever managed – we were off to the very far left – but I knew it wouldn’t matter since everyone would be standing anyway.
With Mika under the weather, Colin took her spot at the last minute to join Mark and Arlette and I. In exchange for the ticket, I gave him the important job of reminding me to pick up a sundae for Mika on the trip home. I saw a number of other work folks scattered throughout the casino.
The band took the stage right at 8:00 with no opener. Normally it takes a few songs to get people out of their seats at the casino, but not tonight. People crowded around the front right from the get-go and security didn’t hassle anyone. Probably because they’d pretty much be forced to hassle everyone.
The setlist was much the same as last time. I say this because I don’t know much Spirit of the West beyond their singles, but pretty much everything here sounded familiar. I suppose it’s the type of situation that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of variation. Really, the show was mostly a rerun from the last time out. You got most of your big hits – And If Venice Is Sinking, Sadness Grows, Is This Where I Come In – mixed in with fan favourites. I know they played Political, The Joneses, The Old Sod, Another Happy New Year, and The Rites of Man. Geoffrey Kelly handled pretty much all of the talking between songs. John Mann was glued to the iPad with the lyrics, but was a ball of crazy dancing energy otherwise. His “FUCK ALZHEIMER’S (in the arse)” shirt was new and got a great reaction.
So how was it? The band was as good as ever but if I’m being honest, you could see some deterioration from the last time. It looked like Mann had a little more difficulty following along with the lyrics now. Have you ever sung along with the radio, only you start singing a bit early and you have to hold back, or you start the wrong verse and you have to quickly switch it up? I noticed a few parts like that, or places where Mann just wasn’t singing where I thought he should be. He barely talked at all when not singing, but he still repeated himself at one point. Now, all of these could be nothing, you know? You hope it’s nothing. Stuff that I’m blowing out of proportion because I was specifically watching to see how he was doing.
I think that would be one of the worst parts about Alzheimer’s. Every little slip would seem like a portent of doom. You know? Forget your watch at home one day and it would feel like a terrible sign. I do it and it just means it’s Thursday.
Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like it was a bad show or anything. Mann’s still got his voice and the band is still great, I just noticed a few moments. And the crowd was not going to be anything but 100% loving and supportive, dancing and yelling and cheers and we love yous all night.
I said the setlist was the same but they actually mixed up the ending a bit. Drummer Vince Ditrich sang a few songs while most of the band took a break. When everyone came back out, they said they’d wrap things up with two oldies. Okay. It was not going to be a surprise what songs those were, and I figured Dietrich’s intermission was done to set up this “encore.” Mark and Arlette got up and went to the stage – it felt like half the people with floor “seating” were there already – and Colin and I soon followed. Of course, it was Save This House followed by Home For A Rest. Mark demanded we pogo. We pogoed. Everyone else in the place was up and dancing and singing anyway. It was a great way to end an emotional show, so I was surprised that they came back out for two more songs. The Crawl is a fine song to end on, but it’s not Home For A Rest, you know? Seemed like a strange choice.
With that, they thanked the crowd and took their final bows. It was an emotional night and both Ditrich and Mann looked like they might have shed a few tears. I can’t imagine what their farewell shows next week in Vancouver will be like.
But the important thing is, I remembered that sundae.
I don’t imagine there’s anything interesting about how I pick which shows to go to. I go see bands I already know I like, or I go see bands I’ve heard good things about. Price matters. The schedule of the rest of my life matters. My general levels of old-man fatigue matter.
The ticket-buying decision for Spirit of the West was a little bit different. I first saw them when they headlined the 2004 Regina Folk Festival. Before then, I was familiar with many of their bigger singles, as most Canadians would be. I don’t think you can legally hold a wedding dance in Canada without playing Home for a Rest. I had a great time at the Folk Festival show, and assumed I’d go see them again sometime.
Of course, that didn’t happen. There was always an excuse. No money, no time, too tired, something else going on, just don’t feel like it right now, whatever. Next thing you know, it had been a decade. These things happen. I’ve never been to the RCMP Museum or the Tunnels of Moose Jaw either, and I only made it to the Milky Way for the first time last year. Fantastic ice cream and it took me nine years to get around to it.
I had some excuse for not going to this Spirit of the West show too. I don’t remember what it was. I knew they were coming and I knew tickets went on sale, but I didn’t buy. Some combination of time/money/interest/whatever. And then in early September, lead singer John Mann went public with the news that, at 51, he’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The Globe & Mail article where I first learned the news was heartbreaking. I have no idea how someone could face something like that at all, much less in front of the world.
I had barely finished reading the article when I bought the show tickets. It felt almost ghoulish. I’ve made jokes about seeing certain performers because “if I don’t do it now, I’m not likely to get another chance,” but this was the first time it felt like that was what I was actually doing.
In his official statement, Mann said, “Hearing the news has been a difficult blow. My family and I have taken some time to try and absorb the ramifications as we struggle to come to terms with the changes that have occurred and are yet to come. But I don’t want to spend any more energy trying to hide my symptoms. I don’t want to feel embarrassed. I want to accept what has happened and live. I will continue to make music and I will continue to do shows. I need to use an iPad now to help with the lyrics, and for my solo shows, either Al Rodger or Tobin Frank will accompany and support me with their diverse and abundance of talents. My Spirit of the West band mates have circled me with care and we will forge ahead as we’ve been doing the last 30 odd years with humour and friendship, playing our hearts out. I will continue to write and tour, because this is what I do and what I love.”
That sounds like someone who isn’t giving up without a fight. And it sounds like someone who’d think that this whole stupid review thing sounds a bit too much like a eulogy, thank you very much.
When you go to shows at the casino, you sit in the balcony or you sit at a table. For most of my recent shows there, we’ve had a full table of four. But since this was just going to be the two of us, we had to split a table with strangers. I saw all kinds of people that I know at this show – internet friends, work friends, Toastmasters friends. We did not luck into sitting with any of them.
Upon arriving at the casino, we noticed a ton of people with nametags, wearing suits and fancy dresses. The people were, I mean. The nametags were pretty plain. We were joined at our table by a suit/dress couple. She seemed nice. He very much seemed like he didn’t want to be sitting with us. I don’t blame him; we were woefully underdressed. Mika got the impression that they seemed like they might be on an awkward first date. When the dude left to get drinks, Mika asked the lady if they were with the nametag people. She said yes, and told us that they were with KPMG’s Christmas party. Not sure how we wound up at their table, but whatever. Thanks for letting us crash your party, KPMG. Next time, can we have drink tickets too?
Google tells me that KPMG are certified public accountants. KPMG’s website tells me that “KPMG combines our multi-disciplinary approach with deep practical industry knowledge to help clients meet challenges and respond to opportunities.” Score one for Google. I suppose it’s presumptuous of me to suggest that I can write website copy better than KPMG can, but I can, so suck it.
There was no opening act. Spirit of the West took the stage right on time. I suppose the first question is, would I have known anything was up if I hadn’t read that article? Yes, I would have, if only because while singing, Mann never took his eyes off the iPad. I knew it would be there and why it was there, but I wasn’t expecting him to be quite so glued to it. He didn’t do much talking; he told one story close to the end of the set, but it was apparent he was reading that as well. But beyond that, his voice was there, his trademark dancing was there, it was a full-energy Spirit of the West show. No asterisk.
They played pretty much everything that this casual fan would have wanted. I didn’t take notes, and right now it’s very late and I don’t think Mika would appreciate it if I woke her up to say “hey, they played Is This Where I Come In, right?” I will say that the only notable (to me) omission was Two Headed, which I’ve always had a soft spot for.
I shouldn’t even need to mention that they closed with Home for a Rest. There would have been a mutiny if they hadn’t. I filmed it and stuck it on YouTube, in case you want to see it (or want to see the rowdiest crowd I’ve ever seen at a casino show, which admittedly isn’t saying much, but still – it’s very much a sit-down-applaud-politely kind of place):
During the show, no mention was made of Mann’s condition until just before the encore, when Geoffrey Kelly introduced Mann as “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” There was no doubt that everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant and Mann got the longest standing ovation I’ve ever seen. It might still be going on now, in fact. In all seriousness, it was enough to make your eyes well up. Kelly thanked everyone, saying that it was incredible to have the support of an entire country behind them. And then another member of the band made a joke about getting lost in the restaurant.
All night, Kelly handled most of the on-stage banter, which led to one moment I found amusing. At one point he said something like “last night, we played in Regina, and tonight we’re here with all of you.” Now, I know he just misspoke, but for a second there, I was left wondering if I had gotten confused about which band member had come down with Alzheimer’s.
Hey, they made a joke too. And mine was better.
• Big Sugar (February 14)
• Dan Mangan + Blacksmith w/Hayden and Astral Swans (March 7)
I was thinking more about John Mann, his sad news, and what a shame it was that I never got to see Spirit Of The West in concert. Surely they came around all the time (they’ve been playing since 1983 so I’d have had plenty of opportunities), so why didn’t I go? I like their music, and over the years have owned several of their albums. Actually, there’s a 2CD collection out there I’d like to get…
But on further reflection, I was pleased to recall that I actually DID get to see them in concert!
In 1996, we went to a three-day festival of 90s rock called Edenfest, at the race track in Lindsay. We saw close to 30 bands in those three days, and I do now recall that SotW played a set. The only thing I remember about it was that I really enjoyed it, as much as I enjoyed a lot of the other bands we saw. They would only have played for 40-45 minutes, as all bands who did daytime sets did (night slots got longer), so chances are good that it was a Hits set. Can I remember specific songs? Nope. Googling for a setlist yielded no results.
I don’t mean it as an aspersion that I can’t recall everything they played that day, or even on what day, or who played before or after them. I chalk all of these gaps up to a vague memory from 18 years ago, at an event where they were definitely not the only band we saw play. Still, I did get to see them! Yay!
Wiki to the rescue! There’s actually a Wiki page for that festival, which lists the bands! SotW played on the Friday, and the band list on the main stage that day looked like this:
Spirit Of The West
Seven Mary Three
I really don’t recall seeing Lustre or The Nixons (though I enjoyed their record Foma, at the time). Maybe we were wandering the festival grounds or over at the second stage. But I do recall seeing all those other bands that day! Wahoo! Thanks, Wiki!