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Still strumming after 25 years

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

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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.

“It was never too quiet ever again,” said Ditrich, who now manages the band. “It was a lot more powerful, a lot more rhythmically accurate, there was a lot of things that I was able to bring that any drummer would be able to bring to the table.”

The change wasn’t without a little rough-going: the band’s history, written by Ditrich, says that Spirit faithfuls sometimes ran from concert halls with “hands over their ears” at the sounds of drums or electric guitar incorporated into the band. But for Ditrich, it was a necessary step forward for a band that wanted more gravity in its music.

“It was a very informal situation where they didn’t have great hopes or aspirations to do anything at the beginning,” he said.

In 1991 the band took its first step in a new artistic direction. Spirit of the West released Go Figure and began to venture beyond traditional folk music. The band toured all across Canada and across the Atlantic, heading to Germany and the UK, and then back to the United States.

Receptions weren’t always friendly — an opening set for Wonderstuff saw an audience 20,000-strong dub them “fat bastards.” At the same show they broke 10 guitar strings.

Today, the band takes that as a learning experience. The band pressed on and released Faithlift , an album that brought Spirit of the West to platinum sales. The album singles …And If Venice is Sinking and Sadness Grows became radio hits.

And the band evolved from there. The album Open Heart Symphony saw Spirit of the West record two concerts with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and turn the experience into a television special. Later performances saw the band join the Edmonton Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic and the Winnipeg Symphony on various stages.

“A quarter of a century later I think it’s safe to say we’ve made ourselves into the granddaddies of Celtic pop,” Ditrich said.

Twenty-five years later, he could be right. Spirit of the West still has two of its original members, and Ditrich and McMillan have been with the band since they joined in 1989 and 1988 respectively. Without a single major hit the band Spirit still has a dedicated fan base, one it hopes to tap into when it plays Whistler.

Ditrich looks forward to seeing 40-something skiers that he said have literally “grown up” with their music. He expects to see them bring their kids along.

“Sometimes we’ll do a summer concert outdoors and you’ll see all these beautiful ladies in the front,” he said. “These were all the ladies that were our fans when we were in university.”

The band members expect to make First Night a family event all their own. Most will be bringing their kids along for an experience that they’ll probably never have again.

“Pretty well all of the kids are going to be there,” he said. “This’ll be the last opportunity to have the entire group of families together in one place,” adding that some of the band’s kids have reached their early 20s.

With the kids in tow, as well as the band’s long-time followers, Whistler’s First Night celebration is certain to be a family affair, whether on stage or off.