Spirit of the West

Official Site
MapleMusic Newsletter
Sign up to keep informed of MapleMusic happenings

In 1983 Geoffrey Kelly, John Mann and J. Knutson began a group they called "Evesdropper". The trio played neighbourhood pubs for very small amounts of money. Oft-times they'd be shunted-off into a corner to suffer and sweat through a miserable set. Oddly, they seemed to like it. It was certainly more fun than actually working, even if most of the audience mistakenly thought they were called "Eavesdroppings".

Armed only with a love of music and a fear of real work the three recorded their first album the next year. Twenty years later the group which had wisely changed its name to Spirit of the West continues to make records and earn far too little money.

There have been some personnel changes through the years, but Mann and Kelly have been there from the start. You can't fire the bosses, you know. Knutson departed after the second album, "Tripping Up the Stairs", and was replaced by Hugh McMillan, multi-instrumentalist, brilliant eccentric, and occasional astral traveler. The band made trips, no doubt to Hugh's dismay, in a huge blue Ford van named "Gerald", slowing his customary pace considerably.

Hugh took a sabbatical after a particularly lengthy and grinding tour of the UK in support of "Labour Day", and was replaced by Daniel Lapp and Linda McRae. Lapp buggered-off months later -- but McRae stayed on. Happily for all Hugh McMillan returned to fill the void left by the errant Lapp.

The line-up of Kelly, Mann, McMillan and McRae plied the roads in support of "Save This House", their first major label release, for Warner Canada, in 1989, touring Canada and the UK. In the UK they played and made friends with "The Wonder Stuff", who were at that time riding high and playing large, packed venues. It was then that the band realised that a four-piece folk group would have difficulty commanding audiences of the size that The Stuffies seemed to master easily. They needed more power, and sought out a drummer to supply it.

They found Vince Ditrich, who, although a musician in Vancouver for years, was new to the Folk-connected music scene. Now he joined forces with a bunch who were activists & vegetarians. They didn't even use Styrofoam cups. Nevertheless the marriage of opposites has worked, no matter what the folk purists may have feared.

The 1991 recording of "Go Figure" followed soon afterward, under the curmudgeonly custodianship of Los Angeles producer Joe Chiccarelli. With Kelly now often on acoustic guitar, Mann switching occasionally to electric, Ditrich on full drum kit, and McMillan experimenting with several new instruments (not to mention his invention of the peanut butter and rutabaga sandwich), there was much growth. There were a few growing pains too, some magnified by conflicts with Chiccarelli.

This was the first step in new stylistic direction -- one which would allow for much more growth than strictly traditional folk. Nevertheless a few of the fans of the group's earliest days were seen, aghast at the drum kit and electric guitar, fleeing the concert halls with hands over their ears.

Intensive touring followed, covering the UK, Germany, USA, and of course Canada -- from Victoria to St. John's. The live show developed considerably, becoming more personal & confident. Beer from all nations was sampled. Favourites were chosen.

The first tour of Germany was an eye-opener. Audiences there acted differently; they were often more composed and attentive than at home. Most spoke English as well as North Americans, and if necessary could explain with frightening clarity just what they did not enjoy about a show. But the reception was very good, the hospitality was exemplary, the accommodations meticulous, the Autobahn terrifying {as, to the vegetarians, occasionally was the food}.

Britain was on the schedule too, one highlight being a guest slot at a sold-out Wonderstuff show at Walsall Stadium, near Birmingham. Standing before more than 20,000 raucous fans, Spirits broke about 10 guitar strings in 20 minutes and managed to be dubbed "Fat Bastards". As the crowd chanted, Vince Ditrich looked down at his beer-gut, sure the comment was meant for him alone. Unable to clearly make-out what the mob was chanting, Geoffrey Kelly was baffled as to why the audience would be so bellicose over a condiment. Squinting out at them he queried, "What's all this about mustard?"

Fat bastards or not, SOTW plowed ahead, tweaking and performing not only current material, but songs as yet unrecorded.

Having learned invaluable lessons both musically and personally from the recording of "Go Figure", the band approached the next album with a steadier gaze. They studied the field of prospective producers carefully and selected Michael Phillip Wojewoda, based not only on the good work he had done with the Rheostatics and the Doughboys, but also his impeccable personal reputation.

His skill and intuition were ideally matched to Spirit of the West. "Faithlift" was a strong showing and a big seller, lifting the band to platinum sales status.

With "...And If Venice is Sinking", "Sadness Grows", and the other singles from Faithlift, Spirit of the West could finally claim to have radio hits. Video was most helpful in adding to the band's profile through the success of "Venice" and "5 Free Minutes", which were huge improvements over some startlingly poor efforts from earlier albums.

One such early video attempt featured, simply because all were at a loss for a better suggestion, a ‘planting-bee’ in the garden of Hugh McMillan’s Salt Spring Island home,. This shaky concept was at times inter-cut with shots of the video producer, clad in a ludicrous Brian Mulroney mask and hip waders, standing in a slough.

Once again intensive and exhaustive touring took place in Canada, the UK, Europe, and America throughout '93 & '94.

The next album was "Two Headed", which began in late March, 1995 with the aid of Ken "Soapy Sales" Marshall. Recorded at Mushroom Studios in Vancouver, this recording was under a strict time deadline, for within days of its completion SOTW were scheduled to record a live album with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. No time to waste, the band made a record that sounded darker, richer, and more serious.

To compliment this more mature sound SOTW asked director Morris Panych and art director Ken McDonald to take the reins for the album's first video, "Tell Me What I Think". Using imaginative costumes, sets, and make-up, the band gave a unique and ground breaking performance. Unlike almost every other music video in existence, the camera was locked-in place, unmoving; the entire production was choreographed to take place on one pristine, uncut and unedited piece of film.

Unhappily, as it turned out, it became evident that the video networks still longed for shots of masked effigies standing knee-deep in stagnant water.

Right on the heels of the completion of "Two Headed" Spirit of the West went into rehearsal for "Open Heart Symphony" -- what had started as two concerts with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra had now mushroomed into a live album plus a television special. This was, as the reader might imagine, a large bite to take for even the most seasoned and confident band.

With songs from the same huge batch which also gave life to "Two Headed", complimented by the excellent orchestral arrangements of George Blondheim, the band was eager to take-on this new and challenging task. At first a little unsure, by the end of the first rehearsal SOTW could be seen grinning like horses eating thistle.

The shows were a rousing success and a high-water mark for the members of SOTW personally {Geoffrey Kelly actually donned a suit -- with long pants}. To the relief of the band the two evening's performances supplied them with sufficient "takes" to complete the album. There was never any guarantee that this would be the case, and the worry all along was that there would be mistakes or equipment failures which would render the recording, or at least important parts of it, useless.

In mid-May of 1995, after an intense five months of work on two albums, the band turned its attention to touring. A stint on "Another Roadside Attraction" was the highlight of the summer. Confronted with ridiculous weather conditions and slathered in mud, SOTW played alongside Blues Traveler, Ziggy Marley, The Rheostatics, and of course the Hip. Playing to audiences as large as 50,000 people, this was a major event, mud or not. Mysteriously The Tragically Hip were never once rained upon. Hmmmmmm.

The touring cycle for "Two Headed" finally over, SOTW then turned their attention back to "Open Heart Symphony", which was released in May 1996, one year after it had been recorded. SOTW appeared with orchestras the likes of the Edmonton Symphony, The Calgary Philharmonic, The Winnipeg Symphony, The Kitchener/Waterloo Symphony, The Boris Brot Orchestra, and Toronto's Lennie Solomon Waterfront Orchestra and Doughnut Kiosk, Co. Ltd. Inc. George Blondheim served as Maestro, but it must now be revealed he was instigator of the apparently scandalous behaviour of beer-drinking on stage, as well as coercion of the orchestra to do the same. Spirits, shy and retiring, only partook of this dreadful activity under his direct orders.

With the whirlwind of 1995-6 coming to an end, Spirits reached a crossroads. Long time manager Janet Forsyth stepped down and retired from the music business, and Spirit Linda McRae left in-order to rekindle her solo career after an eight-year hiatus.

The group pared down to 4 members, filling the 5th chair with a special guest, Tobin Frank, who was hired in-part for his effusive manner and non-stop jokes.

Plans to record somewhere other than Vancouver had long lain dormant, but an opportunity finally arose in spring 1997. After a good deal of leg-work and juggling SOTW made their way to "The Presshouse", a residential studio owned by Jethro Tull's Martin Barre, located in Devon, England. Anglophiles all, the band had a most memorable experience in the quiet English countryside, recording "Weights & Measures". Guests included Martin Bell, formerly of the Wonderstuff; Duncan Moss, (who actually plays with a band called "Shave the Monkey", yet everyone makes mention of the fact that he once appeared with "Page & Plant" on the telly); Karen Matheson & Donald Shaw of Glasgow's "Capercaillie"; and Ric Sanders of "Fairport Convention". Martin Barre played as well, sending the whole band into paroxysms of glee. His wife Julie Barre cooked for the band which also sent them into paroxysms of glee. When done for the day they'd go down to the Kingfisher Pub for a pint....More glee over that. Sometimes they'd hit both the 'Fisher and the nearby Gerrard, both located in the charming village of Colyton, thereby doubling the glee. Once they hit both pubs and got a ride back, too. This of course, tripled the glee. Overall, the project seems to have evoked an unusually high degree of glee.

“Hit Parade”, the 1999 released greatest hits package marked the end of a long association with Warner Music Canada. The individual members took the opportunity to work on solo projects for the first time. John Mann’s “Acoustic Kitty” (Nettwerk), Geoffrey Kelly’s “Gringo Starr” (Base Camp) and Vince Ditrich’s “Supertonic” (Pacific Music) were all released in 2002. Although Hugh McMillan did not release a solo project of his own, he was extremely busy as guest musician, engineer and/or producer on many projects with artists such as Oscar Lopez, James Keelaghan, Mark Perry, Town Pants, The Rant, and several others.

In addition to all this, John Mann has had a very active time as a movie, television and stage actor, Vince has established himself as a producer, songwriter and soundtrack composer, Geoffrey has recorded and toured with several acts (including ‘The Paperboys” and “The Irish Rovers”), Hugh continues to harness his mulit-instrumental playing and compositional abilities on,-tour, in the studio and in concert with a great number of Canada’s finest; and Tobin and his wife have just become parents with the recent birth of their son, Jacob.

Early in 2004 the band began recording tracks for what has become their 12th album, ‘Star Trails’. Recorded on Vancouver Island as well as Vancouver, the ten new tracks were written and produced by the band and mixed by former “Odds” member Steven Drake.