Shooting and reviewing music is awesome. I am lucky to do this, to be in the room to document dozens of great concerts over the years, and I have seen some pretty amazing stuff, but so far nothing has come close to the warmth, love, moments and brilliant spirit in the Commodore Ballroom on this night, and I doubt anything quite will again. I feel incredibly fortunate to have attended one of these farewell shows by iconic locals Spirit of the West, among a mere 3000 or so who were there over three nights (probably less, as I’m sure many of the band’s fans attended more than one night!). It was an absolute honour. Much has been said about the health woes plaguing this band over the past few years, and if you are interested, you can read detailed accounts of that elsewhere. No one wants to overly focus on that as to overshadow the talent and fun they bring to a live show, but you can see why they are choosing to hang up the hat now voluntarily before absolute necessity. In a nutshell, drummer Vince Ditrich has been suffering from kidney failure for some years, now at the point that, as I understand it, he was hospitalized and unable to perform at Thursday’s show. He was here tonight, and while he took some breaks (with Great Big Sea’s Kris MacFarlane taking over for him in these moments), he aced his time behind the kit. At the more immediate forefront and main reason behind this farewell tour was singer John Mann’s rapidly-advancing early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, known about since 2013 when he was still recovering from a bout with cancer, but only announced to the public in the fall of 2014 when he was no longer able to hide symptoms. I find it lovely to hear that the band will continue to have small “John Jams” in private with the singer as a form of music therapy as long as he is able. For these recent shows, he is no longer able to play guitar, and so former guitar tech Matthew Harder has taken over those duties, leaving Mann free to focus on singing with the aid of an iPad teleprompter and cues from the band, but also exhibiting plenty of the ultra-active onstage persona that is part of the band’s infectious live show. Prior to the show, on the screens around the venue, a photo retrospective of Spirit of the West was scrolling through, and the night before, the Commodore Ballroom and LiveNation had honoured the band with the first of likely many plaques to be placed on their new “Spirit of the Commodore” wall, named after them and there to showcase artists that have made an impact or hosted landmark events at the historic venue. Read different articles and you will see a different show tally for Spirit of the West, but among regular tours and longtime traditional St. Patrick’s Day gigs, they have played in the neighbourhood of 50 shows just at the Commodore Ballroom over their 32 year history.
Opening the string of “Home For A Rest” shows here were longtime friends and fellow Vancouver music icons Odds. As I waited by the coatcheck to be escorted in for shooting, Odds drummer Pat Steward came bounding up the stairs, 15 minutes before their scheduled start time. The guy plays for 150 different projects and seems to never have a day off. I don’t know where he gets his energy from. Shortly, we were in the media pit, and out came Odds with guns a-blazing, firing off a 1-2-3 punch of big hits in the form of “Make You Mad,” “It Falls Apart,” and “Eat My Brain.” In the darkness towards the back of the stage, SOTW member Tobin Frank’s son Ellis came out, hoisted one foot on the drum riser, and started playing a tambourine vigourously. Bassist Doug Elliott, who can seem ultra-serious at times, was chuckling away and cavorting with SOTW members and family/friends who were hovering sidestage, joyfully clapping and singing along. Ever-exuberant singer Craig Northey was out in force here tonight too, flinging his feet up in high kicks and making great use of the expanse of the stage. Guitarist Murray Atkinson took the forefront to sing “Eat My Brain,” after Northey introduced him as, ‘a little bit of Ladysmith.’ The keen friendship among the band shows in moments where they get into an easygoing light argument about what certain songs mean. It’s about a dog… no it’s not. It’s about Hornby Island… (<— obvious paraphrasing) "I guess it's about whatever it means to you."
Later on, leading into another big track for the band, "Heterosexual Man," Elliott intoned that this one was, "for the ladies." You don't really look at these guys as a band that would put forth a sizzling song about picking up chicks, but there you have it. Following the song, Elliott spoke up again. "You have nice lips, Craig. Nice lips. You should check out those lips," he told us. Northey replied with, "speaking of lips, those lips from Jasper, Alberta are about to sing." That prompted the band, with Elliott singing, to launch into "Truth Untold." It was then time for some anecdotes as the band thanked Spirit of the West for having them along for these shows, and remembering fond times and how far back their friendship stretches, back to school days. "Vince [Ditrich] used to let me throw up at his house after partying all night at the Town Pump…. They used to have a house on Main and 25th that they called 'Elvis'… we want to dedicate this show to them, especially this next song because it's about those times." And off they went into "Someone Who's Cool." They ended the set by pulling a huge pile of people out on the stage – some of the many special guests who would show up tonight, and slightly different I believe (from what I have heard anyhow) from the special guests the night before and after. Among them were members of SOTW and The Skydiggers (John Mann and Skydiggers singer Andy Maize clustered arm in arm around one mic), local songwriter Bob Kemmis, musician and journalist Paul Myers, and Mann's son Harlan Daumann (his last name blends Mann with Jill Daum, his mother and Mann's longtime partner).
Waiting for Spirit of the West to start their set, the audience was already absolutely amped. Odds did a great job to get people fired up, and the party continued as the room hollered up a storm to the selection of tunes over the loudspeakers. “Come On Eileen” seemed to really get people moving, and I witnessed at least one woman, on her way out of the coatcheck line, scream and throw her arms up in the air and go bolting into the room when she heard a favourite song come on.
As the room finally fell dark to signal the next part of the show, Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” came on over the venue sound system, and Spirit of the West strutted on stage in a line to a huge uproar. I must have gone into a bit of a stupor after that, as I didn’t write any notes about the first bunch of songs. I know as they opened into “Canadian Skye,” Mann was a total powerhouse, tearing and leaping about the stage, dancing at Kendel Carson (the Victoria-born, Vancouver-dwelling fiddler who seems to play with just about every band), who grinned hugely back at him as she bounded about on a podium beside the drums, and shadow-boxing to fill the time until he began to sing. Historically, he is known for some wild antics on stage, and he still looks healthy and strong, but where he once pulled intense faces and made lots of intricate hand gestures while singing, now his focus is solely on following where he is in the song. Through the set, he seemed to rarely falter, or at least it was made up for so effortlessly by the band that it didn’t seem like it. I believe this is part of the brilliant dignity the band is instilling in him for these final shows – if he needs a break, or forgets where he is in a song, the rest of the band just keep on singing. They don’t follow him off stage, stop the song or stare after him. Someone might pop over to point at the iPad screen to remind him of where he is, or escort him back out from sidestage if he wanders over, but mostly they just fluidly cover over those moments and wait until he gets his bearings back. Beautiful. As mentioned before as well, sometimes Ditrich took a break from drumming, and one of those breaks saw him perched on a stool in between Mann and everything-player Geoffrey Kelly (who took over all the banter tonight as Mann is no longer able to keep short term focus on that either unfortunately) for “The Old Sod.” Tobin Frank and Matthew Harder stood arm in arm hollering the none more Scots bits triumphantly. At some point, Ditrich seemed to have a bit of a coughing fit and quietly dragged his stool off the stage midsong, but not before him and Mann shared a lean-in moment of laughter and smiles. Music, the great healer.
Ellis Frank came out again then, being introduced by Kelly who mentioned that he had played so hard during the Odds set that he’d had to go have a shower before coming back out. “Matt had to help him with his hair,” he said of the freshly-washed boy. Ellis and his ukulele took his spot on stage in front of his dad, who had picked up an accordion, and began softly and solo to play a mellow intro to the wonderful “Venice Is Sinking.” Shortly, the rest of the band picked up the full song, but Ellis Frank remained there, singing his heart out with a super-proud dad behind him. That kid is following in his father’s footsteps and is seriously going to make a kick-ass front man some day. He’s already fearless and full of charisma, grinning at the audience and pulling some awesome rock n roll moves. Kelly later deadpanned that all their children are encouraged to be in music (or follow whatever their passions are, music or otherwise) and that all their collective kids have been backstage with them for so many gigs that they are starting to complain if the beer isn’t Stella. Kelly later regaled with an anecdote about recording in Devon in the UK at Martin Barre (of Jethro Tull)’s studio, the one and only time they did that long-desired type of recording where you move into a house in the middle of nowhere for a month – “no wives, no kids, none of that shit!” – to concentrate on music, and they recalled crawling out of the studio and into town for the pub’s last call. “Rites Of Man” was one of the songs that was a product of that time, which they then played. Mann’s strong voice is at the forefront of this tune, and a huge cheer erupted for him at the end of the song. Mann stood with a smile, looking at the crowd and looking a bit choked up. Kelly spoke on his behalf. “It’s been an incredible three weeks [of touring] and we can feel the love… it’s great to wrap this up at home at the Commodore Ballroom.” I can’t even begin to imagine to know how that must feel just knowing this is your second-to-last show. “This is a celebration, none of us are dying here!,” Kelly continued to keep the room bright. Regardless, there were likely a lot of eyes that were not remaining dry here tonight.
Kelly’s wonderful anecdotes continued, speaking about the band’s great times in Germany in the 90’s, leading into “Wishing Line” by talking about how they came across a beautiful cathedral in Cologne one day after drinking what was described as ‘too many Grolsch,’ and decided to climb the tower, giving an amusing insight into seemingly-intense lines like didn’t know how many steps / enough to make me sweat. Kelly then went on to explain how Matthew Harder ended up in the band, having been originally picked up in Winnipeg, recruited as guitar tech, and eventually taking on guitar duties for Mann. So it was his turn to step into the spotlight, where he exhibited powerhouse vocals on the boisterous “D For Democracy.” The side tiers of the room were shaking like an earthquake under the stomping feet. It was amazing. Kelly then continued the tales, talking about his own son Ben, who was born three months early while the band was on tour in the UK. He flew home in a hurry, where his son was already born in Grace Hospital, weighing a scant 2lbs4oz. The audience gasped at the number, and Kelly continued to thank the nurses at that hospital, and in the room, for their care. His son finally came home on New Years Eve, still only weighing 5lbs, and has grown up into a musician as well, playing drums. We would see him pop out later to play drums, giving a fist-bump to dad as he sat down behind the kit. The song “Goodbye Grace” was written about that time, and was the song they played next. Harder’s wife Rebecca came out to sing along with the band for “Morning In The Bath Abbey,” written about an experience of being hung over in Bath in the UK while on tour with The Wonder Stuff, and wandering in to the abbey there to follow the sound of beautiful music coming from inside. They spent half an hour in there listening to the choir rehearsal, and then recuperated enough to go around the corner to the nearest pub, where they wrote the song. The best part near the end when Rebecca Harding strolled to the other side of the stage and had an elbows-out jig with Mann, both with huge smiles, as Carson joined Kelly stagefront for a big fiddle breakdown. The tune is kind of the total opposite of what you imagine angelic music sung by a choir echoing around an empty cathedral would make you feel, but then again, it was written in a British pub.
I wouldn’t have thought the crowd could cheer any harder, but the final two songs of the main set were “Save This House” and “Home For A Rest,” and I was pretty sure the room would crumble into the shops below with a thousand people simultaneously jumping skywards. Steward and MacFarlane joined Ditrich behind the drums for a percussion trio. The intro to “Home…” was particularly sweet, as they punctuated the title words by indicating the four banners behind them, in succession with symbols printed on them – a house pictogram, the number ‘4’, an anarchy symbol, and a pictogram of a bed – home for a rest.
The encore came on shortly after, as Kelly spoke of the people they shared office space with long ago – KD Lang (“She’s not here tonight…”) and Colin James, who, while known for his rock n roll, has a strong love of Irish music, which really bonded them. Furthering the connection, the members of Odds used to make up James’ backing band. I photographed him once before, doing an in-store performance at A&B Sound, where I worked circa 2000. He sang “Not Just A Train” for them. Mann had been hovering towards the back of the stage, but eventually he was urged forward by Frank to join James on vocals. He seemed a word behind James for much of the song, and stopped once or twice, but he kept the duet going. It was beautiful, and the two shared a big hug after. Described as “a gorgeous singer,” Kelly told us James was so good, they were going to keep him out for another, but then also started rapidly introducing a whole bunch of other people, including Paul Hyde from The Payola$, the Odds guys, Kelly’s son Ben on drums, Dustin Bentall, the band’s collective kids, wives, friends, and filmmaker Pete McCormack, who is creating a documentary on the band and its final tour called “Spirit Unforgettable,” which will be screened soon at the Hot Docs Festival, and is something I will definitely be looking for. McCormack and Mann shared a particularly touching hug. With this army packing the stage, a drink in every (legal aged) hand, a big, rousing, upbeat version of “Crawl,” a definitively Vancouver tune about a pub crawl across some iconic North Vancouver bars brought down the house. Ditrich had been missing from this crowd, but eventually weaved his way through the throng, cradling carefully in his arms his three-month-old grandson, who was wearing a striped onesie and wearing gigantic ear protectors and didn’t so much as wake up during this showcase! So much cheering ensued as these players one by one left the stage with waves and hugs after the song. Mann stayed behind and as the crowd quieted down a bit, he tried to speak for the first time that night. Whether he choked up too much to continue, or lost focus on what he was trying to say, I am not certain, but the audience swelled with cheers and people yelling out, “We love you, John!.” Hearts burst all over, tears were shed. Mann thanked everyone, and got so far as to say, “You know, I have problems…” before trailing off and looking towards the floor. Kelly came out from the side of the stage to intervene, simply putting his hands on Mann’s shoulders and spinning him about so his back was facing the audience. His black t-shirt had written across the back in big white letters Fuck Alzheimer’s up the arse. The audience shouted and clapped, and the moment between Mann and Kelly was plain to see, just the look in Kelly’s eyes, as he peered fondly into Mann’s. Just the most love possible. As Mann turned back around, extending his arms to the crowd, clapping, and making a heart shape with his hands, Kelly spoke briefly of his courage. “I get a cold and I don’t want to do this – imagine doing this with what he has.”
They came out again for one more encore, “Throw Your Arms,” which seems fitting given the free-range hugging going on all night. At the end Kelly summoned all the bands members to the front of the stage, where they bowed a few times, and left the stage one final time for the evening. It was absolutely wonderful. On the way out the room, everyone got a commemorative poster as well – super class act. Gosh what a night. Emotions were right up there among everyone, players and crowd – I can’t even imagine what they were like at the final performance Saturday. This band has left a massive legacy and will leave a big hole in Canadiana now, but man, what a group of guys. I can only hope they are wonderfully satisfied with their career and feel the love the country has for them. One of the greats.
Spirit of the West