Spirit of the West,
Save This House
(Warner Music Canada, 1990)

When I first heard the band's name, I expected to hear warbling songs about dogies and tumbleweeds, trusty mounts and sturdy ten-gallon hats. Fortunately, I was wrong. Way wrong. Spirit of the West is a spirited Canadian folk-rock band with a thick slice of attitude and a double dip of grins and giggles ... and, at times, a dollop of serious themes. On a recent trip to Canada, I picked up a copy of Save This House, recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia, and released in 1990.

The tune which first earned my ear is the hard-drinking holiday diary, "Home for a Rest." A snippet of chorus will give you the basic idea: "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." If the point needs a finer edge, wait 'til you hear the boys scream the unending refrain, "Take me home!"

Primary songwriters Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann are the Lennon/McCartney of the band. Both share lead vocal duties, although Mann has the spotlight more often than not; Mann adds electric and acoustic guitars and Kelly chimes in with the whistle, flute and bodhran. Rounding out the fab foursome are Hugh McMillan (mandolins, bass, vocals) and Linda McRae (accordion, bass, vocals), and at least six guest musicians fill in with extra layers of instrumentation.

The band certainly runs a gamut in song sensibilities. From the boozer "Home for a Rest" and the party-hearty rock anthem "Save This House," Spirit of the West slips easily into the sentimental ballad, "Last to Know" ... which, I confess, occasionally hits a little too close to home. "Putting Up with the Joneses" takes a clever stab at bigotry, with Mann cheerfully poking holes in deep-rooted prejudices with brimming glee and a damned fine rhyme scheme. There's more social commentary ("Dirty Pool," "Roadside Attraction," "Loaded Minds"), romantic cynicism ("Turned Out Lies"), social economics ("The Wrecking Ball") and lazy days ("Not Just a Train"). "Sentimental Side" gives the band a chance to demonstrate its choral skills, while "Water in the Well" is a fiendishly satirical (at least, I think it's satirical!) ode to the folksy lifestyle. And "Swinging Single" is a somber song about suicide which deserves a quiet listen.

There are plenty of traditional tunes scattered throughout the album, both as background and interlude, to remind you where Spirit of the West has its roots. If that's not sufficient reminder, the band closes the album with "The Old Sod," which asserts: "There's none more Scots than the Scots abroad, there's a place in our hearts for the old sod." It's a root I hope never withers.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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