British Columbia

Spirit of the West performs final concerts in Vancouver

After playing three consecutive nights at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom, local Celtic folk heroes, Spirit of the West, will hang up their hats on Saturday.

Illness has beset both lead singer John Mann and drummer Vince Ditrich

Frontman John Mann (top ) poses with members of the band Spirit of the West, including drummer Vince Ditrich, centre front. (Suzanne Strojwons/The Canadian Press)

Vancouver folk legends Spirit of the West are heading into their final fling: three consecutive hometown gigs (tonight through Saturday) will be their last.

The end of the band has been greeted with more sadness than surprise, as fans have followed lead singer John Mann's struggles with first cancer, and now early-onset Alzheimer's.

The associated memory loss of Alzheimer's has left Mann reading lyrics from an iPad on stage, as well as needing cues from his band mates when a song is moving from verse to chorus and vice versa.

In a moving interview with the Globe and Mail, facilitated with help from Mann's wife, Jill Daum, Mann talked about his love of playing live, and the intense effort that now takes.

"I just have to be so focused because I have Alzheimer's," he said.

Spirit of the West's 1990 track "Home for a Rest" remains one of their most popular

But Mann's illness is not the only one to devastate the band: drummer Vince Ditrich is living with full kidney failure, diagnosed in 2013.

In an interview with CBC's  Morning Edition host Sheila Coles, Ditrich said that despite the hardship of being on stage, it's clear Mann still loves being a showman.

"Music is [Mann's] safe place," Ditrich noted. "He can still sing, and he gets so much comfort and joy from singing, and it's a very touching thing to see him comfortable when those notes are finally coming out of his mouth."

'An empty white wall'

A documentary about Mann and the band, Spirit Unforgettable, will receive its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto at the end of April.

In the trailer, Mann talks about his struggles, and what living with Alzheimer's is like.

"It's like a white wall," he says, eyes filling with tears.

"An empty, white wall."

The director of the documentary, Pete McCormack, is a long-time friend of both Mann and Ditrich and felt compelled to catalogue the band's end times.

"It was a revelation to me that dementia doesn't mean that your life is over," McCormack said in a blog posted by the executive producers, Vancouver-based Echo Stories, recently. "And that's all due to John saying, 'I'm going to play for as long as I can.'

"And he's still playing."


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