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One of the West Coast’s most prolific folk/rock groups, Spirit of the West’s roots began in Vancouver in 1983 as a trio consisting of guitarist/singer John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly on guitar and flute, and James Knutson.
Going by the name Eavesdropper, they scored some early gigs around the area for the likes of Barney Bentall and Art Bergmann. After they were accidentally billed as ‘Eavesdroppings’ one night, they changed their name to Spirit of the West and slowly worked their way up the food chain to the more prominent bars around the Vancouver region.
They scraped together enough money to book some studio time which resulted in their independent self-titled debut album in 1984, co-produced by Bentall. No singles were picked up by any radio stations, but their quasi interpretations of roots in songs like “To a Highlander Unknown” and “Down on the Dole” caught the attention of reps at Edmonton’s Stony Plain Records, who specialized in folk and roots albums the major labels didn’t normally touch.
The band was signed to a deal and with Payolas‘ Paul Hyde producing, released TRIPPIN UP THE STAIRS in the spring of ’86. Like its predecessor, it was centred around their interpretations of traditional Irish and Scottish jigs and reels. The single “The Crawl” got some airplay in pockets across the west, fuelling a series of dates that extended into Ontario. “Think About It”, which has never appeared on any album or single, was shot during the tour and the video got occasional rotation on MuchMusic for a few years. Once the tour bus was parked later that year, Knutson left the band and was replaced the following year by Hugh McMillan.
He took a temporary hiatus from the band due to health reasons following the next tour in support of the 1988 LABOUR DAY album, co-produced by Danny Greenspoon (Great Big Sea, Ian Tyson, and The Good Brothers, among others). It eventually peaked at #64 on the Canadian charts, and featured the band’s first top 40 single, “Political.” It got them some major gigs around the folk festival circuit and the band was nominated at the ’89 Junos for Best Roots & Traditional Album.
McMillan returned in time for the band to hit the studios in 1989, and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp was shown the door before the recordings were completed. Lapp eventually prused a solo career, releasing several albums that experimented in fusing jazz and folk with electronica.
They finally scored a major deal with Warner Brothers in ’89, shortly before Stony Plain released OLD MATERIAL 1984 – 1986, which was actually only a compilation of their first two albums, along with two unreleased songs – “Time to Ring In Some Changes” and “General Guinness.”
Reps at Warner meanwhile were looking for a more commercially accessible sound. So the band’s first album for their new bosses, 1990’s SAVE THIS HOUSE, showed signs of their folk roots growing into a more mainstream pop tree. With Greenspoon returning as producer, it also welcomed bassit/accordianist Linda McRae to the fold. Although it failed to crack the top 60 on the chart, it was a hit on campus radio stations across Canada, became their first gold album, and produced the title track as a single.
Other noteable tracks included “Home For A Rest.” Although never a chart hit, it was about a drinking spree in London, and therefore a favourite with college students and when played live. That series of tours, which lasted for more than a year, took them across Canada and into the US for the first time with Jane’s Addiction,and overseas, where they were a hit in the UK. While there, they opened for The Wonder Stuff, an up and coming British group, and that friendship led some of the band to appearing on their recordings over the next couple of years.
Their metamorphosis into a straight rock band continued with their next album in ’91, GO FIGURE. To augment their new direction, they brought in their first full-time drummer, Vince Ditrich, and featured new producer Joe Chicarelli. The album hovered around the top 40 on the charts, and the singles “D For Democracy” (partially about Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry and his cocaine controversy) and a remake of “Political” (which featured the unreleased “Sad But True” and “Again and Again and Again” as the b-side to the CD single) also showed promise, and gave the band opportunity to vent about various political themes and the PC government at the time, in songs like “Pulling Lame” and “Far Too Canadian.” Fuelled by an ever-increasing live fan base who went out and bought the album, it became their second gold record (50,000 units).
The band always cited Joni Mitchellas one of their influences, and in ’92 they covered her song “Coyote” from the tribute album BACK TO THE GARDEN, while working on material for their own next record. That same year, they also contributed to the Donovan tribute album, covering “Sunshine Superman.”
Their biggest selling album came in 1993 in the form of FAITHLIFT. “And If Venice Is Sinking” led the way to the album reaching #27 on the chart, while four other singles – “5 Free Minutes,” “6th Floor” (about the JF Kennedy assassination), “Sadness Grows,” and “Is This Where I Come In” helped make the album their first to be certified platinum. Although the album was an adult contemporary cross-over hit, songs like “Sadness Grows” retained hints of their Celtic folk roots. As usual, Mann and Kelly handled the writing, and showed their penchant for dipping into the news headlines and social issues for inspiration. “Guildhall Witness” is about a race riot they encountered while on tour in England. “God’s Apprentice” addressed the Catholic Church sex scandal, and “Bone of Contention” took a poke at the Pee Wee Herman controversy.
But the band’s attempt to duplicate the success didn’t quite pan out with TWO HEADED in 1995. Only “Tell Me What I Think” was cut as a single, despite it peaking at #25. Although a video was produced for the single, officials at MuchMusic chose not to air it with any consistency. The heavier and somewhat darker undertones of the music continued in songs like “Blood & Honey” and the title track, and the band ventured off on a year-long tour that saw them perform a pair of shows with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that were recorded. Although the shows included some of their earlier hits, enough material had been written for a new album, all of which appeared a year later on the OPEN HEART SYMPHONY album. Following her departure in ’97, Linda McRae released a country album later that year, and then formed the alternative/country group Cheerful Lonesome.
After “Bone of Contention” was used on an episode of “Due South,” the band carried on as a four-piece with WEIGHTS AND MEASURES in 1997, recorded at Martin Barre’s (Jethro Tull guitarist) home studio in Devon, England. “Soldier Boy” was released as a single, and although it was heralded by the critics, it failed to make any impression on the charts, as did the album, which the band partially blamed on a lack of push from Warner Brothers. Still, ticket sales for the six-month tour (which included the addition of Tobin Frank to the roster) went well, and they remained a staple on the outdoor festival circuit, and also played the major centres across Canada.
Their song “Kiss and Tell” was used for the soundtrack to the Canadian indie film, “The Hanging Garden.” But once they’d returned from the tour, Warner dropped the band from its roster, causing them to decide to take a hiatus and go on to other projects. Mann, Kelly, and Ditrich all released solo albums, while McMillan did some session work. Mann also landed some bit acting roles, while Kelly did some recordings with The Paperboys along with Tobin Frank, who’d been added to the SOTW roster during their last tour.
They found their way on to another soundtrack in ’98, when “Home For A Rest” was used for “Frosh.” Warner meanwhile released a greatest hits compilation in ’99 called HIT PARADE. Other than the occasional gig, the band reunited in 2004 for their first new album in seven years. Released on Maple Recordings, STAR TRAILS showed a maturity and growth in the songwriting, evidenced by tracks like the lead-off “Small, Small World,” “King of Scotland,” and “Come Back Oscar.”
The band got some added exposure in ’07 when the song “Save This House” was used as the theme song for the reality/renovation TV show called “Save Us from Our House,” which also re-introduced them to the American market as well.
SPIRITUALITY 1983 – 2008 was released on Rhino Records in ’08 to commemorate the band’s silver anniverary. The double greatest hits album also included two new tracks – “Winter’s Now The Enemy” and “Another Happy New Year.” It sparked a tour over the next year that included several prominent dates, including one at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom that March, which was recorded for a CBC Radio 2 special.
Once the tour was over, members again drifted off to do their own things. While the acting bug bit Mann, resulting in him starring in a stage production of the rock musical “Beyond Eden” in Edmonton, Kelly, Ditrich, and Frank joined Ashley MacIsaac and Matthew Harder in 2010 to record a charity single, “Dreams” under the moniker The Parallel Band. Proceeds went to Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, a skier from Ghana who was the first athlete from that country to ever to compete in the Winter Olympics. The Ghanian himself participated in the recording, playing traditional African drums.
In 2011, they released a new single and video called “Bulembu,” which tackled the topic of social unrest in Africa, featuring traditional African rhythms and gaining critical praise. In 2019, John Mann succumbed to complications brought on by Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 57.