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Rekindling the Spirit

After a hiatus Spirit of the West musicians set their sites on Everest WHO: Spirit of the West WHERE: Dusty’s WHEN: March 17 Arranging an interview with members of Spirit of the West, I had to follow all the proper avenues, first speaking with a

After a hiatus Spirit of the West musicians set their sites on Everest

WHO: Spirit of the West

WHERE: Dusty’s

WHEN: March 17

Arranging an interview with members of Spirit of the West, I had to follow all the proper avenues, first speaking with a member of their promotional company who asked, "What type of interview are you after?"

Well, I had to think about that for a moment. There was no new album, no major tour. It is St. Patrick's Day and Canada's premier Celtic band is playing in Whistler. That's reason enough to celebrate, but not quite enough to fill a column. So what have Jon, Geoff, Vince and Hugh been doing for the past year since releasing Hit Parade ?

I decided to surf the net for a few clues that might lead to an interesting interview. Their Web site offered no recent or personal information. A rather dry article tells me the band has left Warner Music, their longtime record label.

But the next Web page I stumble across leaves me quite perplexed. This article speaks about the slow demise and near break up of Spirit of the West. In fact, a string of backdated articles seem to foreshadow the same fate?

I may not be the most dedicated Spirit fan – indeed, I only jumped on the bandwagon about six years ago after discovering the group during my college days. But I did make a special trip to the music store as I was leaving the country on an extended vacation, just so that I might have Weights and Measures in my walkman. I also pride myself on exposing a very large British and Australian population to the joys of Save This House . So how was it that I seemed oblivious to their dimming spotlight?

"We felt we needed a break," says lead vocalist/guitarist, Jon Mann. "We’ve been doing this since 1983. We’ve been around a while. We have 10 or 11 albums out. Everyone felt we really needed to be recharged and get away from the put out an album, tour, put out an album, tour. So we did make that conscious decision that everyone would go off and do their own things."

So it would seem the boys haven’t stepped out of the spotlight, but simply found new ones to step into. Perhaps this is why it never occurred to me that Spirit had disappeared.

Separately, they’ve remained highly visible. Geoff Kelly (vocals, flute, whistles, bodhran, guitar) and Tobin Frank (accordion) both play with another well-known Celtic band, The Paperboys. Hugh McMillan (bass) can be heard alongside flamenco guitarist Oscar Lopez and has also taken to producing up-and-comers Town Pants (see article). Vince Ditrich (drums) is exploring the solo avenue. Mann has been seen on stage and television lately, re-exploring his thespian roots, and also intends to release a solo effort.

"I’m going up to record in Whitehorse in May. There’s a great studio up there called Old Crow," Mann says.

"We recorded our last studio album, Weights and Measures , in Devon, England. It was just wonderful. It had natural lighting and was built out of an old cider press house. It was just a beautiful setting. [Old Crow] is very similar to that, except it’s the northern equivalent.

"Last summer I was also up in the Yukon as part of a millennium project for about three weeks. I was heli-hiking, river rafting. I was commissioned to create a body of work, not necessarily based on that experience, but inspired by it. In order to honour that experience I also wanted to record there."

It’s obvious much of the work of Spirit of the West is inspired by such worldly landscape. Home For a Rest details their travels in London; Wishing Line was written in Cologne, Germany; Sixth Floor came to light in Dallas, Texas. And a future collective effort by the band will also be a direct result of another grand adventure.

"In March, 2002, four of the five of us are going to Mount Everest with Tim Ripple, a Canadian climber," Mann says. "He’s doing a solo ascent up the north face. He originally wanted us to music for the documentary, but then he decided that it would be best if we went up there – which is brilliant!

"When you do the north face you go through the Tibetan side, so you go through the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Lhasa… we’re all preparing physically," he laughs. "We’re all having surgery on the various injured parts of our bodies."

Four of the five members have families, including children. This past year has allowed for more time to concentrate and connect with loved ones, but in return, it’s both a help and a hindrance to song writing.

"The great thing about having kids is they’re in school, into sports, you meet a lot of different people with different ideas, different ethnic and religious backgrounds. You’re really forced to broaden your horizons and communicate with people. But now we don’t have that luxury of sitting down and writing all day anymore. That doesn’t exist in our lives. We’re helping coach hockey teams and driving kids back and forth. So when you’re on the road, and you actually have time to finish more than one line of a set of lyrics, it makes you appreciate the inspiration of your surroundings as well as having time to do something about it."

The best news for Spirit fans is that a new project is tentatively in the works. Both Mann and Kelly have decided to start writing with intentions of recording next spring. Despite more than 20 years experience, the process can’t be an easy one for a band that has already crossed so many musical genres and boundaries. After 11 albums, Spirit of the West inevitably runs the risk of repeating itself.

"We kinda feel like we have yet to make the one album that is thematic. The symphony album is the closest thing that has come to that. But we want to do an album that is Celtic pop. We’ve talked about doing that, but who knows. You get in to write the songs and the album is basically going to be what it’s going to be. We’ve never been too successful in sticking to saying ‘let’s try to create an album like this’. You just write the songs and they don’t fit that theme that you’d planned so (the theme) just gets thrown out the window, and you get another album of good songs. But I still think trying for a thematic album again would be fun."

With a new album, the band would find itself in an old position with a new twist: no major record label. Spirit split from Warner Music after their last release and Mann says they’re not anxious to jump back on board with another label.

"We did the major label thing and it’s really debatable what we have to show for it. I think what we want to do is write and then maybe do some demos and decide from that point… there’s great benefit to doing it independently, too. You can put it out and be making money right away off it, just by selling off the stage. That doesn’t exist in major labels. You’ve got a big machine behind you, but if you’re a mid-level band like we are, you don’t see any money from records sales unless you’re selling in the 200,000 range.

"(Several of us) are in the process of doing our solo albums and doing it independently, and there’s just something about it that is incredibly freeing."