Spirit of the West

The History of Spirit of the West

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. Fifteen 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 and astral traveller. 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 Lapp. The line-up of Kelly, Mann, McMillan and McRae plied the roads in support of "Save This House", their first major label release 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 Wonderstuff 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 early 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 act differently; they are often more composed and attentive than at home. Most speak English as well as North Americans, and if necessary can explain with frightening clarity just what they do 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 make-out what they were 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 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, albeit minor ones. 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 scenes such as a planting-bee in Hugh McMillan's garden, simply because they were at a loss for any better ideas. This shaky concept was at times inter-cut with shots of the 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 reigns 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, & 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 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. New managers Chip Sutherland and Mickey Quase were now on-board, conveniently located only 3500 miles away in Halifax. 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", but 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. 1998 has SOTW planning Canadian tours and preparing for a release of "Weight & Measures" in the UK (on Coalition Records), which will also be supported by a tour. In addition they intend, apparently, to pester the administration of the Cropredy Festival (UK) incessantly until such time as they are invited to attend. Last Updated: 1/98 (from SOTW website)


Spirit of the West Open Heart Symphony

very rare

CD in like new condition

(broken center on inside tray)

A live performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, captured at the Orpheum Theatre by Greg Reely and Don Harder. Project so complex to organise that crew and management suffered night terrors for months leading up to it. Band oblivious to concerns. Arrangements by George Blondheim -- raconteur, bon vivant & repository of jokes which should only be told in the loo.

Spirit of the West
Two Headed

CD (June 4, 1996)
Original Release Date: April 1996

sold used in new condition

Released in 1995.

Spirit of the West
Weights and Measures

CD (April 17, 1998)
Label: Wea
Recorded in Britain in April/May of 1997, this album cost a small fortune. The band shall therefore use this space to cajole you to buy it, in order that they may recoup their horrifying losses.

Spirit of the West Tripping Up the Stairs

CD (June 30, 1998)
Original Release Date: April 1988
Label: Stony Plain Music

Recorded at Crevice Tool Clean Sound by Ron Obvious and produced by Paul Hyde in the spring of 1986, "Tripping Up The Stairs" is a further exploration of the band's melding of seminal issues with celtic-folk-rock fusion music, and was their first release on Stoney Plain Records. Also features some guest artists.

Spirit of the West
Save This House

CD (December 12, 2001)
Label: Wea
also released: Oct 20, 1992
Label: Elektra Entertainment
The first major label release for SOTW. Recorded in 1989 at Mushroom Studios by Danny Greenspoon. Linda McRae's first appearance. Includes such favourites as "The Old Sod", "Home For a Rest", and "Save This House". Also includes a guest appearance by Rob Menzies on bagpipes. As pipers get even less session work than trombonists, this is worth mentioning.

Spirit of the West
Old Material 1984-1986

CD (September 22, 1995)
Original Release Date: 1987
Label: Stony Plain Music
This album comprises songs culled from the band's first independent release, "Spirit of the West" (1984), for half the record, and material pulled from a live concert at the Vancouver Cultural Centre (1986) for the other half. The studio album material was produced by Barney Bentall in his old studio in a plywood mill, featuring special guest Dougie McLean (Scotland) on one track, and the live material was mixed by the careful and exacting Ron Obvious. The original studio album is no longer available, and is considered by some to be a collector's item.

Spirit of the West
Labour Day

CD (September 29, 1992)
Original Release Date: August 1988
Label: Flying Fish Records
This album was recorded after the departure of co-founding member J. Knutson, and was the first album with new member Hugh McMillan. It was recorded at Blue Wave Studios in Vancouver, the band self-producing the basic tracks with the help of Steve Smith, engineer. Veteran Danny Greenspoon came in to produce the final touches and mix the album, much to everyone's relief and ultimate satisfaction. Jazz and funk flavours began to infuse the sound on this disk, and features Alan Prosser (e. guit.) and John Jones (melodion) of the Oyster Band (Britain) on one cut.

Spirit of the West
Go Figure

CD (August 26, 1996)
Label: Bmg

1991 effort, recorded at Vancouver Studios by the charming and effervescent Joe Chiccarelli.

Vince Ditrich's first album with SOTW. Mann moved to electric guitar, and Kelly began playing acoustic. Guitar string manufacturers rejoiced.

Not to be mistaken for "Faithlift" which won a Juno award for its artwork. Features "Goodbye Grace," "D for Democracy" & "Far Too Canadian."

Spirit of the West

CD (May 10, 1994)
Original Release Date: 1994
Label: Elektra/Asylum

Recorded in 1993, Faithlift has made DJs sound as if they're lisping ever since. Tracked at Mushroom Studios, produced and engineered by Michael Phillip Wojewoda.

Includes "Five Free Minutes," "...And if Venice is Sinking..." & "Sadness Grows" (which for some bizarre reason is referred to as "Saunders Grows" by German radio).

Faithlift project holds all-time record for hours spent trying to get an accordion in-tune.