Who: Spirit of the West
What: First Night
Where: Whistler Village
When: New Year’s Eve
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
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
album released in 1989.
Knutson left the band before it released its second album,
. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.