John Fraser Mann passed away peacefully in Vancouver on Nov. 20, at age 57, of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He was diagnosed with the condition in 2012.
Mann is best known as the frontman of Vancouver-based Spirit of the West, one of Canada's most successful and best-loved roots music bands of the last 30-plus years.
John Mann was born in Calgary in 1962, and moved to Vancouver as a teenager. He attended Studio 58 at Langara College to study acting, prior to helping form Spirit of the West in 1983.
The roots of SOTW were planted in a folk trio called Eavesdropper, comprising Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson. The band opted to change its name to Spirit of the West, and independently released a debut album, Spirit of the West, in 1984 before signing to Stony Plain Records. That label released a second album, Tripping Up the Stairs, in 1986, after which Knutson departed, replaced by Hugh McMillan.
1988's Labour Day included the popular single Political, a Mann composition. The album earned Spirit of the West a 1989 Juno Award nomination, for Best Roots & Traditional Album.
The group's growing popularity caught the attention of Warner Bros. Records, which signed the band in 1989. Stony Plain released a compilation, Old Material 1984–1986, to close out SOTW's contract with the label.
The band's major label debut, Save This House, was released in 1990, and the track Home for a Rest became a signature song and reportedly a frosh week anthem at universities. Save This House sold platinum, and the next two albums, 1991's Go Figure and 1993's Faithlift went gold and platinum respectively. The group continued to release albums at a regular rate, up to a final studio release, 2004's Star Trails.
In 2008, SOTW released a 25th anniversary compilation, Spirituality 1983-2008: The Consummate Compendium, on Rhino Records.
Through the late '80s, '90s, and early 200s, SOTW ascended to cross-Canada popularity, thanks to a genuinely spirited sound that fused Celtic, folk and rock elements. Along with peers like Blue Rodeo and Skydiggers, they were part of a roots-based scene that helped foster a refreshing sense of cultural nationalism.
These groups prized originality, honesty, and a social conscience above all else. The fact that their sound did not resonate in a commercial sense to any great extent outside Canada did not matter to us. They were ours, and we knew how good they really were.
Even after Mann's Alzheimer's diagnosis, Spirit of the West continued to perform occasionally. "He had some amazing performances toward the end and I was just so proud of him to have the courage to go out there,” group co-founder Geoffrey Kelly told The Globe and Mail. “He had enough wherewithal to know … he might just screw things up terribly.”
The group played a series of farewell concerts 2015-16, captured in the much-praised documentary Spirit Unforgettable. “I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper,” Mann says in the film. Kelly states “I think it was as beautiful an ending as it could have been, bowing out of the music scene with our heads held high.”
Mann also initially participated in the star-studded “Spirit of John” benefit concerts that supported The Alzheimer Society Music Project, one that raises money to provide MP3 players loaded with personalized music for people with dementia.
Mann released three solo albums, 2002's Acoustic Kitty, 2009's December Looms, and 2014's The Waiting Room.
As well as being a charismatic performer onstage at clubs, theatres, and music festivals across Canada, Mann had an accomplished career as an actor, in theatre, film and television. He appeared onstage in Vancouver productions such as Miss Saigon, Of Mice and Men, Les Misérables and Beyond Eden, as a support player in such films as Underworld: Evolution and The Chronicles of Riddick, and on television shows like Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, and Intelligence. Mann had a recurring role in that latter critically-acclaimed series, projecting a convincingly cerebral presence.
Mann's bandmates were quick to offer eloquent tribute to their departed comrade. Geoffrey Kelly, Mann's co-writer and SOTW co-frontman, told the Georgia Straight that "John was very hard to take your eyes off. His stage presence seeped into all of us [and] definitely affected the trajectory of the band.”
Another bandmate, Vince Ditrich, noted that Mann's lyrics “were idealistic, socially aware and filled with romance and emotion. He had a great knack for combining the very personal with the universal. And, in life, he balanced as gracefully as he could between buddy and icon.”
On Facebook, another former SOTW member, Linda McRae, posted this: "I have so many great memories of you John. You were a sweet and kind human being and one of the best front people ever. I learned so much from you."
I have so many great memories of you John. You were a sweet and kind human being and one of the best front people ever. I learned so much from you.
Jay Knutson told FYI that "I saw John for the last time 2 days ago. I believe he left in peace. John was a star from the moment he stepped onto his first stage. He left us a star, and now shines brighter than ever in the heavens above. We will always love John as a brother in song and spirit. Rest In Peace."
Knutson offered us an amusng anecdote about the early days of SOTW. "John, being younger than Geoffrey Kelly or myself, was a little 'lean' on bio material. So we made up his history with the invention of The Selkirk Folk Band. Occasionally this 'career experience' would come back to haunt him. We loved it when an interviewer would ask John about The Selkirk Folk Band!"
John Mann was a loving father to Harlan & Hattie and a wonderful husband to Jill Daum. A private memorial service will be held later.