Early Spirit builds on Celtic folk tradition

Early Spirit will perform at an album release concert and party at Bluedog Guitars in North Vancouver, Friday, March 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $25, tickettailor.com/events/bluedogconcertseries/236149.

They still have the spirit in them.

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Jay Knutson more so. The founding father of a famous Canadian Celtic-folk rock band is mentoring a young trio of musicians as part of a new band borne out of the ashes of Spirit of the West.

With Early Spirit, the vehicle may have changed but the essence remains, says Knutson, as he guides the younger generation through an exploration of Celtic music.

“You just have to have that spirit inside of you – and that feeling and soul to bring that out.”

After spending the last two decades in teaching mode, Knutson is feeling invigorated by recording music and being on tour with Early Spirit.

“Now I appreciate every moment,” says the band’s lead vocalist.

Knutson’s roots are firmly planted on the North Shore. He grew up here, attending Sutherland and Argyle high schools, and soon after found musical success with Spirit of the West. They were the North Shore’s house band in the 1980s, playing pubs from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove every weekend.

“That’s what we call coast to coast,” says Knutson with a chuckle. “It was a fun time. What I remember mostly when we were doing that is there were eight bars … on the North Shore from coast to coast.”

As immortalized in the SOTW song “The Crawl,” you could actually do a crawl along the whole North Shore and stop at every bar, recalls Knutson. Not so much, these days.

SOTW created its own Celtic flavour, with a conscious decision to make the songs inherent to the West Coast and relevant to the members of the band.

“We didn’t want to just do cover songs or make up songs about places that we didn’t have that relationship with,” says Knutson.

Canadians’ affinity for Celtic music, explains Knutson, can come from many directions – from Scotland, from Brittany in France, even the Ottawa Valley.

Knutson has some Scandinavian blood coursing through his veins, from a region firmly entrenched in Celtic tradition. It permits Knutson to unleash his Celtic energy through song.

He now encourages his Early Spirit bandmates – Will Chernoff (bass), Gabriel Dubreuil (violin) and Ben Kelly (drums) – to find their own connection to the music.

“Playing with the younger guys they have their own relationship with it in a different way and have a different approach,” explains Knutson of jazz and classical influences infused in Early Spirit.

The North Shore Celtic Ensemble, a violin youth group that Knutson co-founded in 1998, helped Early Spirit come together. Playing drums in this group was Ben Kelly, the son of Knutson’s Spirit of the West bandmate, Geoffrey Kelly.

But before Kelly joined their lineup, Early Spirit began as the Gabriel Dubreuil Trio, in 2016.

Dubreuil, a young Franco-Canadian fiddler, attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and had already worked around North America as a session violinist before spearheading the trio – rounded out by Knutson and Chernoff.

With new, original instrumentals and songs, the trio performed at music festivals on the West Coast, particularly in the Francophone community. Welcoming Kelly into the group gave them the rhythmic power to entertain on the big stage, and Early Spirit was born in late 2017.

“That’s when it really felt like we were relating to one another on a very visceral and musical level,” says Knutson.

Last fall, Early Spirit released Unrelated – an album that spans decades and was created through their unique take on folk music.

Two of the songs come from Knutson’s time in Spirit of the West, but they would only be recognizable by true fans. “Mists of Crofton,” Early Spirit’s first single, is a progressive arrangement with deep groove and powerful violin leads.

Reimagining some of the original Spirit of the West tunes felt right for Knutson, “because they’re still relevant to what’s going on in our world today.”

In “Mists of Crofton,” Spirit of the West drew attention to high particulate emissions from a pulp mill and a town’s impending doom, through song.

Also featured as a single on Unrelated is a brand-new set of tunes called “Reel du Cocotier,” where the band moves from swing jazz influences to dance-heavy reels.

Knutson says Unrelated has him feeling lucky. He’s fortunate to carry on the Celtic tradition, and to collaborate with celebrated Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster, who lent her talents for a set on the new album.

“We were thrilled to have her come aboard,” says Knutson.

Early Spirit is currently touring Western Canada and will be back in town March 8 for their album release concert and party at Bluedog Guitars which boasts a lofty performance space in the Lynnwood Marina. The band is inviting fans of all ages to remember how much they love music and dancing.

Knutson says playing at Bluedog will offer an opportunity to interact with the audience in a way not possible with larger crowds.

“How can you not love a stage surrounded by some of the world’s most exquisite guitars?” he adds.

Asked how this tour differs from his Spirit of the West odyssey, Knutson can’t help but laugh.

“I’m not so likely to sleep in the back of a van as we did back in the day – I’m a little more jaded than that,” he says. 

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