There was no way it wasn't going to be sensational. Spirit of the West, winding down 32 years as a band, began its final three-night stint at the Commodore Ballroom Thursday night. It was the 43rd time the legendary Celtic-inspired folk/pop/rock group has played the storied venue – and it did not disappoint. The hometown crowd delivered on their end-of-the-party bargain, with a proper send-off, shouting themselves hoarse and getting the dance floor bouncing – literally.
The packed, sweaty house also gave a loud, rousing and moving tribute to John Mann, whose early-onset Alzheimer's disease is behind the band's decision to stop performing. Spirit of the West will play its final show Saturday at the Commodore.
Mann, 53, was in fabulous form Thursday night – from his knees-up marching entrance onto the stage with the rest of the band (to Uptown Funk!) right through to his final thank-you at the end of an extended show that wrapped up just before midnight.
(Follow Spirit of the West's career with an audio guide to the band's long journey.)
It's pretty gobsmacking to think about the courage it must take for Mann to get onstage and approach the microphone every night. He performs with an iPad that feeds him cues and lyrics, but there's so much going on; it must take a lot of will, strength and focus to pull that off. Spontaneous stage chatter – something he was once so gifted at – is a whole other matter.
Mann's writing partner Geoffrey Kelly now does the talking on stage – and while he is a magnificent storyteller who can captivate even a beery audience with a long yarn, it took only one simple sentence for him to bring down the house: "This is John Fraser Mann from East Vancouver." The place went nuts – fans stomped on the dance floor, whooped and hollered, raised their arms in the air in a prolonged, emotional ovation.
And then Kelly's quip, perfectly timed: "He has a lot of relatives here tonight."
Mann did interact with Kelly a few times, but didn't say much, of course. But when it was time to sing – and dance – he was much more at home. He belted out a gorgeous July (a song about Vancouver); and during the breakup anthem Political, jumped around the stage, kicking at ghosts.
There were so many extraordinary moments, but And If Venice Is Sinking in particular showcased the entwined lives of this band: Tobin Frank's 11-year-old son Ellis started the tune off on his ukulele with his proud dad behind him on the accordion; Ellis was introduced by Kelly who co-wrote the song with Mann – about Mann's honeymoon. We got the message: This is way more than a band; this is a family.
There was more family time during the first encore as Ellis returned to the stage for the sing-along favourite The Crawl, along with other members of the next Spirit of the West generation who danced up a storm and Kelly's son Ben Kelly on the drums (earlier, Kelly had told the story about Ben's premature birth – three months early, Ben weighed only two pounds, four ounces at birth). Two other local music legends, also part of the band's unofficial extended family, joined as well: Paul Hyde, best known from The Payolas, and Craig Northey, who led a terrific opening set with The Odds.
The only thing missing – and it was a major absence – was Spirit's drummer Vince Ditrich. In need of a kidney transplant, Ditrich – who is also the band's manager – was too ill to be there Thursday; he's hoping to be well enough in time for Saturday night's gig. It would be a gigantic shame if that didn't happen – which has nothing to do with his replacement; Kris MacFarlane from Great Big Sea did a tremendous job sitting in. And Kendel Carson on fiddle was a dynamo, especially during jams like the great long one during Is This Where I Come In?
But of course the tune the crowd was waiting for was Home For A Rest. What to say? It was everything both band and fans could have hoped for – transcendent and jubilant. The crowd sung along to every word and pogoed like it was the 90s and they (we) were 25 years younger. Kelly twirled his flute like a baton and did a proper rock star jump off the drum riser to bring it all home. It didn't even feel sad, which was amazing.
This, however, kind of did: "Thank you guys," Mann said after the sea of applause. "I love you."
In the documentary Spirit Unforgettable, which will have its world premiere at Hot Docs later this month, Ditrich says: "We want to go out with a bang, not a whimper."
Man, are they ever.
Spirit of the West plays two more shows at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver Friday and Saturday nights. Then it's home for a rest.