What Spirit of the West meant to Vancouver

One of Vancouver's definitive bands calls it a career—but not without one final hurrah on home ice

April 29, 2016

By Aaron Chapman / Photo: Andy Scheffler

Legendary Canadian folk rock group Spirit of the West performed its final three shows earlier this month in Vancouver at the Commodore Ballroom, bringing to a close the story of one of the most successful and beloved bands that Vancouver has ever spawned. With vocalist John Mann diagnosed at age 53 with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease and drummer Vince Ditrich in need of a kidney transplant, the group came together to perform these final three shows at the venue that had been a constant fixture throughout their career.

The uninitiated will be forgiven for only being familiar with one of the band’s songs. But while the signature rock and reel of “Home For a Rest” raised glasses from pubs to campuses across the continent, the band was always more than a Guinness fuelled romp—they carried a healthy dose of activism born out of the times they started. These days, Vancouverites seem to only come together by the tens of thousands for the 4/20 marijuana smoke-in or the summer Pride Parade, but in 1984, the year of Spirit of the West’s inception and amid a hastening nuclear arms race, 115,000 people marched downtown for Peace that April. Many early Spirit of the West performances would be at benefits and environmental causes from here to Clayoquot Sound, events that they continued to perform at well into the next decade even when by that point they were selling out festivals and producing gold-selling albums. Those records featured some of the most imaginative songwriting of the genre, and along the way the band have even invented a genre of their own: maritime-influenced songs that men in pubs could sing, but that kids wanted to dance to.

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The Commodore Ballroom was a fitting location for these final shows, and it’s easy to understand why the band referred to it as “home ice.” After all, they’d performed more than 40 concerts there over the years, and few other bands gave its famous dance floor the kind of beating it took from Spirit of the West fans—a thousand Doc Martened-clad feet jumping up and down in unison. That was something that several street level retail businesses below the Commodore on Granville forgot when it closed in 1996, and they sealed up the ceiling air vents that were attached to it. They were reminded in spectacular fashion when Spirit of the West returned to the re-opened Commodore in 1999, and the air pressure created by a thousand-plus pairs of dancing feet nearly cracked their windows and burst open their locked doorways. The beloved Ballroom always had a heart, but Spirit of the West showed it had a pair of lungs as well.

Given the health of some of the band members, these shows could easily have carried a solemn tone to them. But make no mistake: this was hardly a stagger to the finish line. The performances maintained a celebratory air, and there were laughs and smiles each night as well as a number of guest musicians. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, the Skydiggers Andy Maize, ex-Bare Naked Ladies’ Steven Page, and Colin James all made unannounced guest appearances over the course of the three evenings, while The Odds opened each night. None of those stars stole the show more than Ellis Frank, the young son of Spirit’s bassist/accordionist Tobin Frank, who with a Les Paul-style ukulele stepped out from the wings each evening to sing and play the opening on “And if Venice is Sinking,” one of the band’s biggest hits.

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I spent most of the three evenings watching the band from the wings backstage, where close friends and family had gathered. But it was on that final night, as they pulled into the last songs of the set, that the gravity that this was all coming to a close sank in for the audience and band alike. Multi-instrumentalist Hugh McMillan dramatically took a knee to play his final solo, aiming the neck of his guitar in musical fealty to Mann, like a knight saluting his king. Vocalist-flautist Geoffrey Kelly, who somehow remained buoyant as master of ceremonies throughout the shows, held his arms out to Mann, his songwriting partner for decades, with a smile on his face as if the two of them were the only ones in the Commodore. It was as if he was saying, “Hey, we did it.” And then there was Mann and Ditrich, the last two members on stage slowly walking arm-in-arm to us in the wings, like two battered soldiers who’d somehow survived the war together. These are just a few scenes that many of us who were lucky enough to be there will never will forget. I stepped out front to the dance floor in one of the final songs, but instead of facing the band on stage I turned around to look at the audience and saw more than a few had crumbled smiles and tears streaming down their faces.

We beat ourselves up a lot in Vancouver these days. We wonder about how the city’s changed, what it still stands for, and whether this is still a place for us anymore. But here was Vancouver the good. For three nights, this was all our band. There was 3,000-plus lucky people who took in those final 72 hours and who will likely speak of it for years to come with reverence and celebration. If Spirit of the West had shown us over the years how to (with a certain Vancouver sensibility) have a good time, now they were showing how to leave the party and go home before it was too late. The Spirits have earned their rest.

Aaron Chapman is a writer, musician, historian, and author of Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom

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