Nfld. & Labrador

Spirit of the West's John Mann remembered fondly by members of Great Big Sea

The frontman’s music made waves across Canada, including with musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bands toured together, crossed paths at concerts and festivals dozens of times

John Mann, left, and Alan Doyle perform together. Doyle says Mann had an energy unmatched by any other performer. (Alan Doyle/Instagram)

Spirit of the West frontman John Mann's music made waves across Canada, and the energetic and charismatic performer is being remembered fondly by musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mann died in Vancouver on Wednesday after battling early-onset Alzheimer's disease. He was 57.

Singer-songwriter Alan Doyle says Mann made a massive contribution to music across the country.

"In particular, for those of us who were invested in folk music, we loved Spirit of the West, we loved especially how John presented it," he said.

"When we saw Spirit of the West for the first time, I saw someone who put on a show, and that to me changed the way I thought folk music could be presented."

Nobody gave it all, every performance, like John Mann. Nobody.- Alan Doyle

Doyle pointed to Mann and Spirit of the West as pioneers in bringing folk music and Celtic music to prominence in the 1990s.

"I think without them, the whole Celtic wave — and Atlantic Canadian wave — of the mid-'90s probably wouldn't have happened, or it would have happened very differently," he said.

Mann's energy and passion was unmatched, Doyle said, bringing the swagger held by rock stars to folk music.

"Nobody gave it all, every performance, like John Mann. Nobody."

Bob Hallett says talking to Mann was 'like talking to a volcano.' (CBC)

Doyle's former Great Big Sea bandmate Bob Hallett echoed his sentiment about Mann's energy.

"He was one of the most energetic guys I've ever met. He was like talking to a volcano," said Hallett.

"But he was also very, very generous and he loved St. John's."

Hallett said Great Big Sea and Spirit of the West toured together in the '90s, and crossed paths at concerts and festivals dozens of times after.

Hallett said he last performed with Mann in 2013, when it became apparent that he had begun forgetting words.

"A few days later, it came out that John was really starting to struggle with Alzheimer's, and his decline was very quick after that," he said.

"You could just see that this huge, huge person was in a prison of the soul and it was terrible to watch." 

Mann was diagnosed with early-onset Alzeimer's disease in his early 50s. (Lisa MacIntosh Photography)

But Hallett said Mann was a talented performer who had the same energy and passion off the stage as he did on it.

"He didn't take himself seriously, but he took his work very seriously," said Hallett.

"He felt that what we did, travelling the country as musicians and playing for people, was really, really important. He was never pretentious, but he believed what we did was important and he lived his life that way." 

'A bright light'

Sean McCann said Mann was "a bright light," and one of the reasons he wanted to become a singer in the first place.

"I might have been on the fence before I saw them, but when I saw Spirit of the West, their live show and what they were saying, I made up my mind, I wanted to be more like them.

"They had a huge influence on, not just Great Big Sea, but a lot of other bands."

McCann said he loved getting work with Mann and Spirit of the West, even if they dropped Great Big Sea from their first tour together in 1995.

"They kicked us off the tour because we were too much like them," he said. "Great Big Sea were a Spirit of the West cover band, like half our set was covers of their songs before we broke away.

"They came to us and they said, 'Guys, you're great, but you're too much like us — and you're drinking all our beer.'"

McCann said he remembers Mann as a courageous person and musician, with a strong social confidence in music.

"He was a great writer, a fearless writer … he challenged [listeners], and that's not an easy way forward as a songwriter in the music business," he said.

"He would fearlessly point out things that were wrong in the world and try to fix them, and he was also very kind, certainly to me."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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