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Still strumming after 25 years

Spirit of the West will be bringing children, and long-time fans to First Night



Who: Spirit of the West

What: First Night

Where: Whistler Village

When: New Year’s Eve

Twenty-five years.

In that time, the Cold War has ended, two Bushes have served as presidents and this writer has taken his first breath of life.

Through it all, Canadian folk daddies Spirit of the West have stuck together, and they’ll be bringing their Celtic-infused sounds to Whistler’s First Night celebrations on New Year’s Eve.

Spirit of the West began life as a three-man band called Evesdropper in 1983. At the time it consisted of singer/guitarist John Mann, flutist/vocalist Geoffrey Kelly, both still with the group, and guitarist/vocalist J. Knutson.

The band was considerably more low-key back then — it would play neighbourhood pubs for “very small amounts of money,” according to a history on Spirit’s website. They enjoyed it a lot more than real work. Audiences sometimes thought they were called “Eavesdroppings,” according to the history.

Evesdroppings combined a Celtic drum, Irish flute and guitars into a unique sound that went over well in various venues — not just the folk clubs in which their music would become a staple.

The band soon changed its name and recorded its self-titled first album a year later. The album can’t really be found anywhere, according to the band, but its earliest material survives on an Old Material album released in 1989.

Knutson left the band before it released its second album, 1988’s Labour Day . It marked the first recording with new member Hugh McMillan, who joined the band to play bass, keyboards and guitars, though he’s since incorporated instruments such as a bouzouki, banjo mandolins and electric basscello. He remains with the band to this day.

The next three years brought a dramatic change to the band with the addition of a drumkit and electric guitars. What started out as “three guys having some fun playing folk music” turned into a more powerful sound with the addition of Vince Ditrich, a drummer who’d already been a musician in Vancouver for years.

New to the folk scene, Ditrich joined the band in 1989 at a time when it was touring with The Wonder Stuff, a group that played big venues throughout the UK. Spirit of the West knew that a four-piece folk band couldn’t command audiences the way Wonder Stuff could, and felt a drummer could give them more power.