Spirit of the West and John Mann were the soundtrack to many fans' lives
For Patrick Fowler, attending a Spirit of the West concert at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver was like being on a trampoline.
The venue's sprung dance floor is famous for its bounce, and when the band's signature bar anthem "Home for a Rest" kicked into high gear, the crowd was practically on springs -- jumping up and down and belting out the lyrics about a drinking spree in London.
"It was like a universal anthem. Everybody knows the words," says Fowler, who lives in Coquitlam, B.C., and is studying classroom and community support at Douglas College.
"I can't think of a party and event that somebody hasn't played that. The song comes on the radio in a store and everybody's singing it or humming it."
Fowler is among legions of Spirit of the West fans and friends sharing fond and tearful memories of the B.C.-based band after Wednesday's death of frontman John Mann in Vancouver. The Calgary-born singer-songwriter and four-time Juno Award nominee had been battling early onset Alzheimer's. He was 57.
Many say Mann and the band provided the soundtrack to their lives, with a mix of Celtic, roots, folk and rock that charged up countless university pub nights, festivals, road trips and house parties.
"Sometimes you see these bands and you're going, 'OK, that band was great,' but it's kind of the same thing over and over again; John brought something different," says Vancouver-based mortician Matt Kaiser, who saw the band about a dozen times in five different cities in Western Canada.
"He brought a new love of his craft and his music, and it really is going to be sad that we won't ever get the chance to see him again."
Former Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett recalls being in high school in St. John's, N.L., in the late 1980s, "trying to find a way to make acoustic music that would be powerful and emotional and exciting."
His light bulb moment came when he turned on the radio and heard Spirit of the West's vast array of instruments, from acoustic guitar to accordion and Irish flute.
"It was a tremendous inspiration," says St. John's-based Hallett. "It was like, 'OK, this is possible."'
Spirit of the West's high concert energy is largely attributed to Mann, who had an infectious passion for performing. A part-time theatre actor, he was known to jump around onstage, snapping his fingers and flailing his arms in a way that put a collective smile on audiences' faces.
"John was just an amazing whirling dervish," says B.C.-based singer-songwriter Barney Bentall, who was close with Mann and the band and recorded their first record.
"It was very physical, what he did, and extremely charismatic."
The band was a staple at the Commodore, mainly during St. Patrick's Day celebrations, and that's where they performed their final three concerts in 2016.
"It's the true joy of a concert in its purest and finest form," says Erik Hoffman, president of Live Nation Toronto who knew Mann and the band in various capacities, including his role as the booker/promoter for the Commodore for eight years.
"They were the poster children for that and John was the leader of the pack. When you watch from the side of the stage and see nothing but joy on faces during that moment and everybody forgets about everything going on in their lives, it's the essence of what we do. And they were just perfect at it."
Mann didn't take himself seriously "but he took the work very, very seriously," says Hallett, who later came to know Mann and the band when Great Big Sea opened for them.
"He always made everybody around him try harder," says Hallett.
"All the people who passed through that band were tremendous live performers. I remember thinking going out after them, 'OK, everyone is going to have to pull their socks up tonight. Those guys are going to push us as hard as we can possibly go. We've got to live up to this."'
Mann was also a huge supporter of other acts they toured with, Hallett adds.
"This is a world driven by ego and money and these things, and John was generous with everything -- with his time, with his energy, with his artistry, with his mentorship."
Kaiser recalls Mann's microphone cutting out during an outdoor show in downtown Calgary in the late '90s. Instead of being upset, he soaked in the moment and let the crowd of about 3,000 people sing the rest of "Canadian Skye."
"He had that big infectious smile that he was so well known for and it was one of the greatest memories I've ever had."
What Mann gave to the crowd they gave back to him, especially during "Home for a Rest."
"It was insane," says Kaiser of the song. "Every time we were at a pub, every time we were at a concert, we were jumping, we were dancing. We were just doing what you do to that song. It is just Canada at best."
When the band howled "You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best, I've been gone for a week, I've been drunk since I left," Fowler felt the music pulsating from his feet to his chest as the Commodore's floor vibrated.
"It was a huge sense of community, a shared experience," Fowler says. "It was like we were all speaking the same language.
"At the Commodore Ballroom at their last concert, it was gut-wrenching but also this time where we all celebrated what they had achieved and John's achievement and John's contribution."
As fun as Spirit of the West was, they also reflected on deeper issues and the country's history and landmarks in their music, particularly the West Coast.
Their other hits included "And If Venice is Sinking" and "Political."
When Mann's disease had started to progress and the band was still performing, he used an iPad to remind him of lyrics.
"Sometimes he would not scroll the page on a song with the iPad and so it would just repeat again and he would start at the beginning lyrically," says Bentall.
"Those were such tender moments. You didn't know if the song was going to be the usual 3.5 minutes or maybe six, but everybody would just turn their eye and keep playing away."
Bentall says he got to see Mann early Wednesday at his care facility, where he was surrounded by loved ones in "a very beautiful setting."
"His old guitar was there so you could sing songs to him, if the spirit moved," he says.
"It's a tough one. It's just such a difficult disease to process. To see it take somebody that young, it's sure hard to see."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2019.