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Best tunes of 1990: #4 Spirit of the West “Home for a rest”

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Happy Friday! At spot number four on this list, we’ve got the perfect song to end off the week: “Home for a rest”, easily Spirit of the West’s best known song. And though it missed out by one song to “Political” when I ranked my top 5 songs by the band back in the spring, I’m willing to concede it’s a very, very, very close second.

I’m sure it’s funny to the band now, after its massive popularity growth over the years and the accolades heaped upon it by Canadian music media, that it was never released as a proper single and the producer for “Save this house” even had to convince its writers, John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly, to record it for inclusion on the album. Imagine if he had failed? The Vancouver-based, Celtic folk rock band might have never gotten as big as they did. They would have had to find another track to close out all their shows since the early 90s. Canadian Saint Patrick’s day ceremonies across the country over the last three decades would have had a big gaping hole in their evening play lists. I would have had to have found another favourite drinking song, a song to request and dance to at weddings. And just maybe, I might not even be married to my wife Victoria, given that we got together at one of Spirit of the West’s concerts in the late 90s.

“Home for a rest” really is a rollicking good tune, regaling the stories, whether true or not, of the band’s first tour in England and their many visits to pubs across the country. It warns of the perils of too much drink and bemoans being away the comforts of home but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming so well-known as a drinking song. Indeed, the chorus is shouted along with like a badge of honour:

“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best
I’ve been gone for a week (month), I’ve been drunk since I left
These so called vacations will soon be my death
I’m so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest…”

The band incorporates the melodies of traditional folk reels into the song, fleshing out the vehemently played acoustic guitar with accordion flourishes and head-spinning flute solos. It begs to be jigged to with abandon on any dance floor anywhere and I’ve done so many times. I had gotten so proficient at it that I had proper dancers thinking I had the jig mastered and asking where I’d learnt it. It wasn’t skill, I assured everyone. It was just plain earnestness and plenty of beer.

So raise a glass with me to this iconic Canadian song, the now-defunct band who wrote and performed it so many times over the years, and to John Mann, the lead singer, who is now courageously battling early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Cheers!

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

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 100 best covers: #98 Great Big Sea “End of the world”

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“It’s the end of the world as we know it…. and I feel fine.” What a great line and an incredible tune.

Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard R.E.M.’s original version. From their 1987 album “Document”, “End of the world” is considered one of the band’s best-known and best-loved songs and is definitely up there among my own personal faves by Michael Stipe and company.

Fast forward to 1997 and we have Newfoundland-based folk rock band, Great Big Sea, releasing a cover of said song for their third studio album, “Play”. If you’re not from Canada, it’s possible you’ve not heard of this band but they were pretty big here in their home country. I say “were” because they’re broken up now but in their heyday in the 90s, the four-piece of Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett, Séan McCann, and Darrell Power put out a string of albums that were filled with high energy rock tunes with a Celtic folk bent and more than a few of these were perfect soundtracks for hoisting a pint or three. I didn’t like all of their songs, favouring those where their traditional background was more evident, but they had a talent for putting a rousing Celtic folk touch on the songs they were covering.

Great Big Sea’s version of “End of the world” is a full minute and a half shorter than the original. But don’t you go thinking that they cut out a verse or something.

No. It’s all there.

It may be unbelievable to you R.E.M. fans but they actually did it by speeding up the already frenetic pace set by Bill Berry’s drumming in the original. Fiddles are a-whir and the mandolin on a tear but it’s Alan Doyle’s valiant vocal effort here that really makes this song, sounding off each syllable of Michael Stipe’s lyrics with his own hoarse Newfoundland roar.

Both versions are great in their own right (though I still prefer the original) and both are ripe for a rowdy dance floor, but where R.E.M.’s is made for the pogo, Great Big Sea’s is one more prone to jigging.

Oh and be careful, that dance floor is likely quite sticky from all the spilt beer. Carry on.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

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Tunes

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 were never 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 in 2018, 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 we 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 a 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 are smart and hilarious, some of my favourite that 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.