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John Mann, Spirit of the West frontman and Canadian music legend, dead at 57

Spirit of the West’s John Mann on stage as the band plays its farewell series of concerts at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on April 15, 2016.
Spirit of the West’s John Mann on stage as the band plays its farewell series of concerts at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on April 15, 2016.

John Mann, the lead singer of Vancouver folk-rockers Spirit of the West, has died.

The Calgary-born musician, who moved to the West Coast to study acting at Studio 58 at Langara College as a teenager, died Wednesday in his adopted hometown of Vancouver at the age of 57, seven years after he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease when he was 50.

Mann’s publicist, Eric Alper, confirmed his passing in a statement Wednesday evening, celebrating his rich legacy in the arts.

“He was a potent force in music, acting — onstage, in movies and on television, and was world renowned as a songwriter,” Alper said. “As well, he was a foresightful activist and charitable figure for several worthwhile organizations. His work will resound long after his untimely passing.”

Mann disclosed the disease in 2014, four years after receiving the diagnosis, which followed a two-year battle with colorectal cancer. But he pressed on, continuing to write and perform music for two more years. In the end, he was known as much for his bravery in the face of his health troubles as he was for his 40-year career in the arts, especially his songwriting.

In 1983, he first hooked up with Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson and formed the trio Eavesdropper, though they would change their name to Spirit of the West by the time they independently released their self-titled debut in 1984.

More attention was drawn by the group’s sophomore record, 1986’s “Tripping Up the Stairs.” With all songwriting credits split evenly among the trio, the record was an eclectic stunner, with several songs built around traditional Scottish and Irish jigs.

In 1988, the band — with Hugh McMillan replacing the departed J. Knutson — solidified its reputation with the acclaimed “Labour Day.”

The wryly titled breakup tune “Political” — credited to Mann alone — gave the band its first real hit, and the band’s third album went on to draw both their first Juno nomination and the interest of major labels.

Spirit of the West signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1989, and followed with “Save This House” the following year, eventually scoring the band its first platinum album.

Their sound evolved perhaps even more dramatically with 1991’s “Go Figure.”

Their first album with a drummer (Vince Ditrich), “Go Figure” funnelled the band’s rootsy influences into a significantly harder-rocking framework, with several songs taking aim at former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Even “Political” was re-recorded here, newly jolted by electronics, and some fans resisted — a London, Ont., audience petitioned the band to perform the original version, for instance.

While Spirit of the West’s evolution toward rock did rankle some, they’d never been more popular. They struck platinum again with 1993’s “Faithlift,” tackling issues as heavy as riots, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and Yellowknife’s Giant Mine explosion — and earning their best-selling record in the process.

Mann’s legacy will live on through his band’s anthem, Home for a Rest, considered a Canadian music classic.

Spirit of the West remained prolific even to diminishing commercial returns, releasing three albums over the next three years.

As the band wound down and eventually went on hiatus, Mann kept busy.

He rekindled his long on-hold acting career, eventually scoring roles on “Stargate SG-1,” “Smallville,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Intelligence.”

In 2002, he went solo with “Acoustic Kitty,” and would release two more contemplative solo records in 2009 (“December Looms”) and 2014.

That last record, “The Waiting Room,” tackled Mann’s long fight with colorectal cancer.

He learned he was sick in 2009, and spent months confined to a hospital bed. He’d fully recovered by 2011.

In September 2014 he made public his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In a note on his website, he said the diagnosis was not a shock because he’d been harbouring certain “fears and suspicions.”

“But I don’t want to spend any more energy trying to hide my symptoms,” he said. “I don’t want to feel embarrassed. I want to accept what has happened and live. I will continue to make music and I will continue to do shows.”

He added that he would use an iPad to help with lyrics for his shows, and he would accept musical accompaniment from friends.

“My Spirit of the West bandmates have circled me with care,” he added, “and we will forge ahead as we’ve been doing the last 30 some odd years with humour and friendship, playing our hearts out.”

A four-time Juno nominee for his work with Spirit of the West, Mann and his band became underground heroes for their politically savvy, musically diverse songwriting, which fused traditional strains of folk, Celtic and turn-of-the-’90s alt-rock.

Spirit of the West was active for more than three decades, from its inception in the early 1980s to its farewell concert series in 2016, which culminated with three nights at the Commodore Ballroom in April of that year. The band’s final performances, guest-filled affairs with friends such as Alan Doyle, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, Colin James and Paul Hyde sitting in, were immortalized in the award-winning 2016 documentary Spirit Unforgettable.

Mann spent his final days receiving palliative care in a residential home and died peacefully, surrounded by friends and family and, of course, music. Mann had two children, son Harlan and daughter Hattie, with his playwright wife Jill Daum.

“John was a man of uncommon courage,” Alper said, “was a loyal and beloved friend, a gentleman of great social conscience, and a soul brimming with creativity and enthusiasm.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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