A&E » Music

Spirit of the West returns to its 'home away from home'

Vancouver Celt rockers perform at Whistler Olympic Plaza on Saturday, Sept. 6

by

comment

The West Coast's own riotous Celt rockers Spirit of the West are returning to Whistler for what drummer Vince Ditrich describes as "probably the 100th time."

"We really feel like it's a home away from home and look forward to it," he says.

The performance, part of the Resort Municipality of Whistler's 40th anniversary celebration, includes special guests — which Ditrich wouldn't give away. He promises that the show will be special, "a one off."

It takes place on Sunday, Sept. 6 at 3:30 p.m., at Whistler Olympic Plaza.

Formed by lead singer John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson in Vancouver in 1983, Spirit of the West was part of a surge of Irish and Celtic rock alongside international bands like The Pogues and The Waterboys.

Knutson eventually left and Ditrich joined the band in 1989.

And 32 years on — with Hugh McMillan, Tobin Frank and Matthew Harder — Spirit of the West's band members have become elder statesmen of great craic (Gaelic for fun).

"We're the granddaddies for sure, you can't get rid of us. We keep it as comedically shambolic as we can and have fun with it. The attitude is: 'Oh, my God. They still love us, I don't know why,'" Ditrich laughs.

"Hugh had such a great description. People would ask what kind of group we were and he'd say 'Every Folk.' Such a strong Celtic influence and when we started doing that, there was no one doing it, not in the manner we were doing it.

"There were a lot of Eastern bands that had Celtic flavours... but almost nobody was adding pop or alternative style. I think we were the very first of that variety."

These days, there is an awareness of the preciousness of time. Mann announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in Sept. 2014, and has been very open about the experience.

"He's doing well. There's a lot of love for him across the board. It is a very common question (How is John doing?), but everyone seems to be quite delicate about it. We're open, it's just one of those things that we have to accept as we move ahead. The fans are very supportive.

"I think that an important part of the message for me is the public disclosure of this. People start saying, 'My auntie has this,' or 'My mom has this.' You realize that almost everyone is touched by this goddamned disease."

Mann going public with the news was an attempt "to make lemonade out of lemons," Ditrich adds.

"He's not going to sit in his house and hang his head and cry. He gets a huge amount of joy from performing, so we're trying to do what we can, while we can," Ditrich says.

"He is doing the best he can. He's facing an absolutely dreadful disease. There is no disguising it."

Mann also performed in Whistler earlier this summer with Barney Bentall and Jim Byrnes.

But Spirit of the West is not on a tour, Ditrich says, making it sound like something more intimate.

"It's a series of summer gigs. I'm usually singing above John and I hadn't sung for weeks, so I'm a little bass today," he says.

Having done a bit of high-pitched background singing to Mann's vocals the previous night at a Spirit of the West concert in Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, Ditrich's voice is feeling a little strained.

"It's going well. We're having lots of fun. We brought all our wives with us this time to Bouchart and we're having a get together today. It's as much a summer picnic as anything."

He says Mann uses an iPad to keep him on track with the lyrics while singing.

"Absolutely, it's a necessity," Ditrich says, noting that many singers use prompters as a matter of course, even those at the level of Barbra Streisand.

"It's hard. There's a lot of lyrics, a lot of people paying attention to how you're singing."

With a large back catalogue and 13 albums it's a lot of material to cover.

Ditrich says: "After a certain amount of time you realize the basic songs that people want to hear — there ends up being maybe three or four other songs you can swap in and out for fresh air, so to speak. But if we don't play 'Home for a Rest' or 'The Crawl' people would be infuriated. Those absolutely must be in the show.

"Every show is fresh for us and gets us closer to the last one. It looms large in our imaginations."

Ditrich himself has had a health scare, having been on dialysis since 2013 following kidney failure.

A recent hope that he had found a matching kidney transplant donor did not work out after tests were made. The donor — Mrs. Canada International 2014, Angie Shilliday — has been friends with Ditrich for 20 years.

Now Ditrich is back to square one, looking for a donor.

He says: "Angie and I have committed to work together on this, she is a powerhouse. We want to work together to remind people that those out there in trouble who need organ donations and they need help and for people to sign the donor cards."

Tags

Add a comment