Best tunes of 1990: #25 Spirit of the West “Save this house”

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The first time I remember hearing Spirit of the West was one Friday night circa 1991, while watching Good Rockin’ Tonite. They were doing a feature on the Canadian music scene and the final video they played was the one for “D is for democracy” off “Go figure”. It initially caught my attention because the accordion player, Linda McRae, was wearing a Wonder Stuff (of whom I was a fan) concert T in the video but the song quickly grew on me as well. I would go on to fall in love with (what I would later learn was a reinterpretation of) “Political”, off that same album, and bought “Go figure” based on that. Months later, I procured “Save this house” as one of my many “9 albums for a cent” shopping sprees from either BMG or Columbia House and it would become a perennial mainstay in my CD player, most definitely during the summers of 93, 94, and 95. It wasn’t long before Spirit of the West was one of my favourite bands and to this day, they’re tied with Stars and Spiritualized as the band I’ve seen the most times live. I would see them again in a New York minute but unfortunately, they’ve broken up.

Spirit of the West were a Vancouver-based Celtic folk rock band that was formed in 1983 by John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly, and J. Knutson. The last of these departed three years into their run and was replaced by Hugh MacMillan and the aforementioned accordion player, Linda McRae, joined not long after. On a tour of England in support of “Save this house”, they met and played some shows with The Wonder Stuff. This meeting was the impetus behind SOTW adding a drummer and incorporating more of a rock edge to their sound (and also likely where McRae got her shirt). The group would go on to become quite popular in Canada in the 90s, not just on the strength of their albums but also of their energetic and fun live shows.

“Save this house” is the title track and the high energy opener off their major label debut, their last before they “went electric” with the help of drummer Vince Ditrich. At a mere three minutes in length, it’s a song that packs a wallop. It commences with a funky groove (if you can call celtic folk funky) but it’s not long before the chorus and the frenetic acoustic guitars kick in and you just want to jump up and save whatever house John Mann and crew are looking to rescue. In this case, though, it’s a rough task to take on because their target is the planet Earth. They’re calling for an end to the house party that’s been trashing our home for years.

“The welcome mat’s worn out, the roof will never mend, the furniture’s on fire, this house is a disgrace. Someone change the locks before we trash this place.”

Indeed.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

Top five tunes: Spirit of the West

Who? Spirit of the West

Years active: 1983 – 2016

Band members:
John Mann (vocals, guitars) 1983-2016
Geoffrey Kelly (flutes, whistles, bodhran, guitars, vocals) 1983-2016
Hugh McMillan (multi-instrumentalist) 1986-2016
Vince Ditrich (drums) 1989-2016
Tobin Frank (bass, piano, organ, and accordion) 1997-2016
Matthew Harder (guitar) 2014-2016
J. Knutson (bass, bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, vocals) 1983-1986
Linda McRae (accordion) 1989-1996
Daniel Lapp (multiple instrument) 1988-1989

Discography:
Spirit of the West (1984)
Tripping up the stairs (1986)
Labour day (1988)
Save this house (1990)
Go figure (1991)
Faithlift (1993)
Two headed (1995)
Open heart symphony (1996)
Weights and measures (1997)
Star trails (2004)

Context:
Spirit of the West originated as the trio of John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly, and J. Knutson under the dubious moniker Eavesdropper. It wasn’t long, though, before the name was changed to Spirit of the West and the band began releasing albums of traditional folk music. After only two albums, Knutson left the group and was replaced by Hugh McMillan. Linda McRae was later added in time for their major label debut, “Save this house”. It was while on tour in support of this album that they met, performed, and became friends with The Wonder Stuff, another of my favourite 90s bands, in England.

The Stuffies would go on to influence Spirit of the West to experiment with more of a rock sound. They brought in drummer Vince Ditrich and “Go figure” was born, and afterwards, with each successive album, more and more of their early folk sound would give way to rock. Linda McRae left the band at the height of their popularity in 1996 and to my mind, they’ve never been the same. They released two more albums, “Weights and measures” in 1997 and “Star trails” in 2004, and a couple of compilations but became mostly a touring outfit, albeit sporadically, for many years afterwards. In 2014, frontman John Mann announced he had been diagnosed with early onset alzheimers and although they continued to play shows for a while, with an additional guitarist and with Mann using an iPad to help with the lyrics, the band finally called it quits in 2016.

I have been a fan of Spirit of the West since high school and have seen them live many times over the years. There’s many good reasons that I’ve seen them so many times and own most of their albums, not least of which are the quality of their entertaining live performances, musicianship, songwriting, and the personal attachment I have to the material. So the news of their breakup struck me hard last year, even though it had been years since I had seen them perform and really, since they had released any new material. I had hoped that the band would make a swing through Ottawa on its final tour so I could see them play one last time. However, as it turned out, they didn’t and I had to be satisfied with watching footage from their last concerts online and watching the excellent documentary, “Spirit unforgettable”, that showed the band and Mann’s struggles in their final year.

Spirit of the West and their music will forever be inextricably tied to certain memories that I share with my wife, Victoria. They are one of the many bands I introduced her to years ago and they also played a special part in our collective history. It was on the night of one of their concerts back in 1996 that our relationship became more than the friendship it had been previously. We had known each other for three years already but on a night where decided to go to a Spirit of the West show at the university pub together, everything just fell into place. We have since seen the band perform twice more and ensured that we included a few of their songs in the celebrations of our big day when we finally married back in 2009.

All that to say, Spirit of the West was a great band that deserved to be more successful than they were, as is evinced by the number of great musicians that turned up at their final shows as guests. For me, they will always rank up there was one of my all-time favourites.

The top five:

#5: And if Venice is sinking (from “Faithlift”, 1993)

Besides a certain drinking song that I’ll get to in just a bit, “And if Venice is sinking” would easily be the band’s most recognizable song. It was their highest-charting single off their best-selling record. It’s a joyful sounding tune, Linda McRae’s prominent accordion kept pace with the deep thumps of a tuba and the warbling strum on the mandolin, a carnival like reflection of the energy of Northern Italy. Classic paintings, gondolas, and churches abound in the world famous living museum that is Venice. The lyrics were a reflection of John Mann’s honeymoon there and I couldn’t help humming the tune when my wife and I followed him there over fifteen years later on our own honeymoon. We, too, never wanted to leave such an enchanting city. “And if Venice is sinking, I’m going under, ’cause beauty’s religion and it’s christened me with wonder.” Indeed.


#4: Far too Canadian (from “Go figure”, 1991)

The music on “Go figure” was my very first introduction to the band. The cassette tape was pretty near a constant fixture in my Sony Sports Walkman in my final year of high school. The final song on the album was this six and a half minute number railing against the Mulroney Conservative government of the day and the perception of Canadians as quiescent sheep, starting off with Mann singing so forlornly over the strumming of his acoustic. He is later joined by the flute and accordion as the passion increases. I’ve always loved the song for its calling out of Canadians to be stronger than we appear. “I am the face of my country, expressionless and small, weak at the knees, shaking badly, can’t straighten up at all. I watch the spine of my country bend and break.” Going through my old things recently, I found my grade thirteen art journal and in it, I had written out the lyrics in total, surrounded by random doodles. Interestingly, the music video that I found for the song (below) is collage of truly Canadian images, painting a completely different picture.


#3: The crawl (from “Tripping up the stairs”, 1986)

“Home for a rest” isn’t SOTW’s only great drinking song you know! Four years before they wrote about drinking through their way through the pubs in England, John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly penned this humdinger detailing an epic pub crawl along the north shore in Vancouver. Kelly takes the lead on vocals but Mann joins in on the roaring chorus: “Well, we’re good old boys, we come from the North Shore, drinkers and carousers the likes you’ve never seen. And this night, by God! We drank till there was no more, from the Troller to the Raven with all stops in between.” Though it is one of the band’s oldest songs, it was still a regular in their live sets right up to the end and perhaps because of its prominent place in their encores, it has long since become a fan favourite. From what I’ve read, many of the pubs referred to in the song still stand and fans and drinkers alike organize pub crawls along the route, hitting all the same pubs that the band purportedly did drink at regularly. Something to keep in mind for my next trip out west.


#2: Home for a rest (from “Save this house”, 1990)

You had to know that this song would be on this list somewhere but you likely had it pegged at the number one spot. For many Canadians, this is like an alternate national anthem and have spent many a beer-soaked night singing along with Mann and the rest of the group. What many people don’t know is that as popular as the track is, it was never released as a single off “Save this house”. It slowly grew in popularity over the years, reaching its apex in the late nineties, largely thanks to its inclusion on the popular “Frosh” CD compilations. It is a great track to say the least. The lyrics smart and hilarious, some of my favourite the band has written, like: “The gas heater’s empty, it’s damp as a tomb. The spirits we drank are now ghosts in the room. I’m knackered again, come on sleep take me soon and don’t lift up my head ’til the twelve bells of noon.” But with the exception of the slow, warming up intro, the pace is frenetic, perfect for hopping around, ‘Lord of the dance’ style on a packed pub dance floor. Personally, I’ll never forget a particular St. Patty’s day back in university where I got so blottoed that I got up to sing the vocals because the musical entertainment at the pub that evening didn’t know the words and the likewise drunken crowd wanted to hear it. It was an occasion that will likely never be repeated.


#1: Political (from “Labour day”, 1988)

This song is so great the band recorded it twice. It originally appeared on 1988’s “Labour day” and later, with some added drums and a healthy dose of rock, was re-released on 1991’s “Go figure”. This latter version is the one I first heard and loved it from the beginning for both the words and the sound but after hearing the more stripped down original years later, I rarely choose to listen to the second version. I think many fans prefer the original. There’s even a story going around about how, back in the day, the band were presented with a signed petition asking them to play the song as it was originally arranged. The song itself is not politically charged, despite its name, but is actually about the end of a relationship, apparently based on John Mann’s ancient history with the near iconic frontwoman of Mecca Normal, Jean Smith. It also happens to be my wife Victoria’s favourite Spirit of the West song because some of the lyrics in the song remind her of the early days in our relationship. In a sense, I agree with her but unlike the subjects in the song, we survived the tumultuous days of our youth and lived to sing along with one of our favourite bands. “Why did everything, every little thing, every little thing with you and me have to be so political?”


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #30 The Northern Pikes “She ain’t pretty”

#29 >>

We start off this list with one of the handful of songs that I can say with certainty were being listened to by these ears of mine back in 1990. I can blame the Canadian Content radio rules for the overplaying of this track so that it caught my notice, but blame also belongs to a certain high school friend named Brian, who would eventually make me a cassette tape copy of the album on which this song appears, a copy I still have to this day.

For those of you reading this from outside of Canada and who might never have heard of this group, The Northern Pikes were formed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1984 as a quartet and were headed by principal songwriters and singer/guitarists, Jay Semko and Bryan Potvin. The band released four albums on Virgin Records Canada before breaking up in 1993, citing exhaustion as a reason for their dissolution. They later reformed in 1999 to help their label put together a greatest hits collection and then, to tour in support of said compilation. The success of that original reunion tour and the new passion that resulted saw the band release two more albums and they still exist today as a trio.

“She ain’t pretty” is the band’s best known song from their best-selling third album, “Snow in June”. Notice, however, I didn’t say it was their best song. I’m not even sure it’s the best song on that album but it was definitely the song that drew me in originally. That and its cultural significance for Canadian rock and its popularity are good enough reasons to me for the song to win out over any of the other great, and perhaps, deeper tracks on the album and earn on a spot on this list.

Written by Bryan Potvin, “She ain’t pretty” tells the sad, sordid tale of a Joe Normal dude who meets and becomes infatuated with a physically attractive woman but who turns out to be quite a horrible person – a “model from Hell”. Listening back to it now, the blues rock and rockabilly swagger has a timeless quality, even though Potvin’s raw vocals has a definite eighties edge to them. But really, the story seems to lack credibility. Why would such a woman who wore a mink even bother condescending to a date with a jeans wearing, dish washing, musician hack? This is a question that never occurred me back in the day. Instead, I was enamoured with witty lines like: “Her ego wrote checks incredibly fast but her personality didn’t have the cash”. Even still, it’s a fun track that never fails to bring a smile whenever it pops up.

Finally, I just want to give additional props to the creators of the music video for the song, whoever they were, because it was and still is quite entertaining and incidentally, it was nominated for a Juno for its innovative use of claymation morphing techniques.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.