Southern Exposure

In a music scene as internationalized as the one in the United States, it is unfathomable that one of Canada's biggest concert attractions could go virtually unnoticed south of the border. Perhaps its inauspicious origins as a progressive, Celtic folk trio with no commercial potential dampened its reception with all but an enthusiastic cult following in the lower 48.

Twelve years of relentless touring, innovation, and a bit of electricity has seen the Spirits blur the distinctions between a myriad of styles that one could not imagine belonging together-say, Lawrence Welk doing Pink Floyd, or U2 playing the Chieftains' greatest hits. But the band does it in a way that works "big" and has earned them two gold records and a number of Juneau awards (Canada's equivalent of a Grammy) along the way. Their sixth recording, Faithlift, was finally picked up by an American label (Elektra) after going platinum, and has found them gaining an increasing audience beyond their native soil.

Now a quintet, the band's latest release, Two Headed, reaffirms John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly as one of Canada's best songwriting teams. The collection of songs covers the whole spectrum: haunting, whimsical, sonic, quirky.

Lyrically, its style is decidedly folkloric-stories are told from a point of view that is intensely personal and often political. The pain of a spouse's miscarriage comes across poignantly in "Never Had It In Me": "The day became undone/She called her faith a liar/She lost the lovely one/Whose weight was once inside her/Her son was snatched from the sky/His leap of faith blew him wide/Took him over to the other side."

A reflection on the right to die is conveyed in the country-flavored "Unplugged": "The ceiling's too familiar/Laying slackjawed on my back/My words spill out like puzzles/She tries to fill the gaps....I will not burden those I love/I will not be a spoon fed bird/Or beg for mercy from above/Just let my cord become unplugged."

The imagery employed by Kelly and Mann can be subtle or in your face, sometimes simultaneously. From the earlier recording Go Figure, a simple chorus in a song about child abduction goes for the jugular, not so much in what is said, but in the sheer horror Kelly brings to the vocal: "White tee-shirt, pink dress, no shoes." They can devastate or elate with a simple twist or play on words in a way I have never before experienced.

MUSICALLY, THE SPIRITS are simply all over the place, defying classification at every turn. Traditional acoustic instruments and styles can carry the day or be wedded to a techno edge that completely complements what it might be expected to overpower.

Vince Ditrich's percussion is both imaginative and steady. As the resident multi-instrumentalist, Hugh McMillan sneaks up on you, weaving in and out of melodies almost before you are aware that he's been there. McMillan's lead work, whether it's on electric guitar or octave mandolin, gets more mileage out of a single sustained note than most guitar heroes get out of a 10-minute solo.

John Mann ranges from plaintive to manic on vocals and guitar. (It's surprising that he doesn't hurt himself at live performances.) Finally, whether it's ripping a mosh pit to shreds or simply lilting out Irish reels, Linda McRae on accordion and Geoffery Kelly on flutes and whistles round out this eclectic ensemble with what can only be described as both verve and grace.

A live recording and television special with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra-due out in 1996-and a summer tour with Another Roadside Attraction (Canada's version of Lollapalooza) should garner an ever-expanding following. If we're lucky, they will go beyond their international status-as everybody's favorite opening act-to headlining shows in the United States as well.

Spirit of the West is not to be missed. A splendid time is guaranteed for all, eh?

MIKE MILES is an anti-war organic farmer and a member of the Anathoth Community Farm in Luck, Wisconsin. He is currently producing a multimedia adaptation of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

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