Well, that was lovely.
With those four simple words, John Mann summed up an incomparable evening and an amazing career.
On a damp Sunday night in November, in a Vancouver ballroom teeming with music and love, forty-five of Canada’s most talented musicians came together to pay homage to a falling comrade. When John Mann took the stage with Spirit of the West—despite the rapid advancement of Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease—he danced with the gusto that fans had come to expect from one of our country’s greatest frontmen.
As a long-time Spirit of the West fan, I felt the absence of John’s unique, emotive voice when his band erupted into song with a heartfelt rendition of its customary opening number, Canadian Skye. But as Matthew Harder belted out the tune’s sparse lyrics in a moving tribute to his friend and bandmate, I held a fist to my chest and sang along:
Here’s where I feel it
It’s funny how it’s, funny how it’s here
Where I feel it …
John Mann could no longer sing lyrics he had so brilliantly composed, but he was there, reveling in the limelight once more before walking off stage into an increasingly dense fog. For the thousand or so fans in attendance, his presence meant everything; and the few words he spoke—when he quietly stepped to the microphone with a wide smile and a sparkle in his eyes—were an unexpected gift.
* * * * *
I remember the first time I heard John’s voice, in the spring of 1993. I was dancing with friends at Bud’s Social Club & Boogie Parlour in Invermere, BC, when the moody opening lines to Home for a Rest—the band’s quintessential song about a pub-crawl-dressed-as-a-music-tour across England—rang out from the DJ’s speaker, slowing the crowd to a drunken sway:
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best
I’ve been gone for a 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 …
I didn’t expect the Celtic-rock explosion that followed, and even as it grabbed hold of me on Bud’s dance floor I had no idea how important that song—and the band that played it—would become to me. My feet responded to a combination of sounds I’d never heard before. I was flung into dance—leaping into the air, spinning around, locking elbows with friends and strangers alike. In that moment I found my music, my people, my soul.
I couldn’t guess how many times I have danced to Home for a Rest over my quarter century of admiration for one of Canada’s most under-appreciated bands. The song evokes memories from so many chapters of my life—so many homes, so many friends, so many emotions. My wife and I even credit Home for a Rest with inducing labour on the eve of our son’s birth, as we danced around the living room with our 21-month-old daughter, singing at the top of our lungs.
Spirit of the West has driven me to find a deeper source for my own words, both as an author and as a musician. And they’ve fueled a hell of a lot of fun, too—with their diverse range of drinking songs, thinking songs, and everything in between. They’ve ridden with me on an expedition across the UK with four dear friends who dubbed ourselves the “Spirits of the West”; on a re-enactment of The Crawl, a kilt-clad pub crawl spanning Vancouver’s North Shore, to celebrate my fortieth birthday; on a camper van trip across North America with my family, where my six-year-old backseat DJ spun a rotation that centered around three bands: The Beatles, The Tragically Hip and Spirit of the West; at two Grey Cup celebrations, where John and his band of brothers injected Celtic spirit into weekends of unbridled Canadiana; to weddings, stags, birthday parties, surfing trips … and, sadly, to the funeral-turned-wake of a fallen “Spirit” who passed away far too early from a cycling accident in France.
* * * * *
As I stood only feet from the stage and watched Spirit of the West perform together one last time—at their “home” in Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom—I acknowledged the privilege of my own recollections. Watching John Mann dance wordlessly to songs he had written, I thought of the residents I have come to know at the dementia care cottages of Christenson Village—the local seniors’ home where I volunteer in Gibsons, BC. John Mann had inspired me to volunteer there, through his courage to continue touring despite the neurodegenerative disease that attacked the very neurons and synapses which had empowered him to write some of the most poignant and witty songs on record.
I volunteered with Alzheimer’s patients to better understand a growing community of people—almost 44 million worldwide—who are all-too-often hidden away from society as they fall deeper into the suffocating embrace of dementia. I expected to see anguish—both for the patients and for those who love them—and I have. But I have also seen beauty and humour and creativity. I’ve heard a woman whom I thought to be mute sing an entire song from her youth; I’ve seen elderly ladies defy their frail bodies to dance with spirit and grace; I’ve heard snippets of lives lived to their fullest, often in faraway lands; and I’ve seen groups of seemingly incoherent people weave fables that would rival the tales of Dr. Seuss or Robert Munsch. What I’ve experienced during my volunteer shifts at Christenson Village, above all else, is humans being human—despite the most challenging of circumstances.
* * * * *
It has been over a month since I attended the Spirit of Canada benefit for John Mann. In the days following the event, I tried to write about it. But there was too much to process—about the disease that necessitated a benefit concert; about my history of fandom for the dozens of legendary musicians on stage; about my own tight-knit group of friends who came together to appreciate one another as we appreciated our musical heroes; and about John Mann, the humble human whom I met only once, years ago—as he chatted amiably with me and my son while we disembarked a ferry in Horseshoe Bay—but whom I felt like I had known for most of my adult life.
Then there was the show itself—a who’s who of Canadian music playing with joy and sorrow, united in their love for the concert’s main attraction. There was Barney Bentall, the Legendary Heart who initiated the benefit, and his son, Dustin. There was Jim Byrnes duelling Colin James in a good-natured blues showdown; Kendel Carson shredding her bow alongside fellow fiddler (and one-time Spirit of the West member) Daniel Lapp; Shari Ulrich and her multi-talented daughter, Julia Graff. There was Alan Doyle and Ed Robertson auctioning an autographed guitar—its signatures representing no fewer than seventy-five Juno awards—and serenading the winning bidder with a lively rendition of If I Had a Million Dollars.
There was a surprise appearance by the rest of the Barenaked Ladies, too. There was Odds—Canada’s House Band, as Master of Ceremonies Terry David Mulligan aptly called them—playing with Wide Mouth Mason’s Shaun Verreault. There was Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy, touting Sarah McLachlan as “Canada’s greatest singer” while demonstrating his own remarkable voice. There was Sarah, melting the crowd with mega-hits Angel and Building a Mystery. And there was Spirit of the West: John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly, Vince Ditrich, Tobin Frank, Matthew Harder—with special guests Gaelan and Kiaran McMillan filling in admirably for their father, Hugh, who was unable to attend. (Lest I forget the other Spirits’ offspring, Ben Kelly and Ellis Frank, who rounded out the night’s freshest act: Spirit – The Next Generation.)
I almost didn’t write about the concert of a lifetime. As the weeks passed and the magic faded, too many words fought for precedent, leaving me with a trash bin full of crumpled ideas. Then a friend—who is also my volunteer supervisor at Christenson Village—showed me this amazing photo from the event, and it caused me to revisit my words with a renewed sense of purpose. I realized I didn’t have to say everything I wanted to express—I just had to say something … about an evening that left a thousand people speechless … and about the man who spoke for us all, as he had been doing for so many years.
Well, that was lovely.
* Many thanks to Adam PW Smith for allowing me to use his beautiful picture in this post.