Spirit of the West holds a lot of real estate in my heart.
Though the cloudy mists of memory might obscure the details I think I got the vinyl LP of Tripping Up The Stairs about 29 years ago when my buddy Tim owed me some money and chose to pay it back with records. It, along with early exposure to The Pogues, introduced me to traditional Irish music and prompted me to find the Vancouver chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, where the late Michael Muldoon taught me to play the whistle. I wanted to play the tunes Geoffrey Kelly played on the album—The Kesh Jig, The Blackthorn Stick, Pigeon on the Gate—but at the time they were beyond my grasp, and I didn’t have music for them. Now I understand that one learns traditional tunes best by ear, but the internet of today gives access to almost any tune ever played or recorded.
I continued to follow the band as their music progressed and evolved. Sometimes there was more rock, sometimes more folk, sometimes John Mann’s clear, melodic voice, sometimes Geoffrey Kelly’s growl. I saw them live whenever I could: The Commodore, The PNE, the Stein Valley Festival, whatever venue 86th Street turned into. They were always great, even when Geoff Kelly grew his hair out and wore Chip and Pepper pants on stage, and their music was powerful, moving and fun. Their song The Crawl was the basis for my (and many others) bachelor party. I still have absolutely no memory of Deep Cove’s Raven Pub, the final destination of the crawl. Not proud of that, but it is what it is.
The Commodore Ballroom is another touchstone of my life. The venue has been around since 1929, but I became well acquainted with it 60 years later when I realized that I was one bus from downtown with student loan money in my pocket. I’d been there before, coming into town with friends to see Shriekback or the Mr.T Experience, but this was something different. As a student journalist I often got tickets to gigs if I wrote a preview article or did an interview. It was almost a scam, really, but it meant that as a student and afterward I walked up those carpeted stairs to see The Pixies, Sugar, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, The Cramps, Voivod, the Beat Farmers, Dave Alvin and his Pleasure Barons, The The, DOA, Billy Bragg and more, often with the same gang of ne’er-do-wells. I know people who were there more frequently, but I was there enough to have a pretty fierce connection with the place. Now, as a grown-up living in the suburbs with little kids I don’t have as many opportunities to maintain that connection.
Last Saturday night, April 16, 2016, brought these things together again as (thanks to a Christmas gift from my lovely and intelligent wife) I joined the same aging youth gang of the past thirty years (plus a couple I haven’t known quite as long, but might as well have) for Spirit of the West’s final show. Lead singer John Mann is battling early onset Alzheimer’s and drummer Vince Ditrich desperately needs a kidney transplant, and the band planned to end their 32 year run with a bang. We were there to celebrate, bear witness, and say good-bye to a band that we loved, and which had no small hand in shaping us into the eclectic, weird-ass middle-aged farts we’ve become.
They didn’t disappoint. Mann, despite his current challenges, was a dervish, so full of the joy of music that he danced around the stage whenever given half a chance. He now reads lyrics from an iPad, but that doesn’t detract from the unutterable beauty of If Venice is Sinking. The band was tight, the guests were fun and it was a classic SOTW gig, except that at any chosen point about half of the sold out crowd had tears in their eyes. That was the thing: this was a full house of people with an emotional investment in this band, and we wanted to give them a proper farewell as much as they wanted to give us one. I think everyone got what they needed from that night, and now that the night is well over I hope John Mann and his wife Jill Daum find some peace in their struggle, I hope Vince Ditrich gets a kidney, I hope Geoffrey Kelly, Hugh McMillan and Tobin Frank keep making music somewhere, and I hope you enjoy these videos. There’s other ones I would have like to have recorded, but I was either dancing too hard, or other people were dancing too hard around me.