Alzheimer Society of Toronto asks you to fill in the blanks

Spirit of the West fans are prompted to complete the band's most famous lyrics to promote The Music Project.

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It’s common to see musicians engage with their audiences at live shows by having them complete lines from their biggest tunes, holding the microphone out to the crowd as everyone sings along.

But at the Spirit of John concert at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on Jan. 31, fans of the Canadian folk-rock band Spirit of the West will be singing for another reason: to commemorate former frontman John Mann, whose early onset dementia now prevents him from performing. Instead of having Mann lead the group, the remaining members of Spirit of the West and other Canadian musicians will perform, with the proceeds benefiting the Alzheimer Society Music Project, which puts digital music players in the hands and ears of dementia sufferers.

Promoting the concert is a campaign called “Fill in the Blanks,” the first by Good & Ready, a Toronto-based creative shop that opened its doors in December. The work uses a common performance trick to drive home a poignant message:

“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my ___,” begins the 30-second digital spot. “I’ve been gone for a month. I’ve been drunk since I___. These so-called vacations will soon be my____. I’m so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest…”

Based on Spirit of West’s most popular song, “Home for a Rest,” the video reflects the effects of dementia, while calling attention to the fact that those who remember the missing words “remember more than the musician who wrote them.”

A broader campaign, which consists of a 60-second radio ad (airing on Jazz FM though Jan. 31) and social posts, includes video footage from Spirit of the West’s last tour in 2015, when Mann used a tablet to prompt him with lyrics so that he could perform his own songs, explains Good & Ready co-founder Alan Madill. “As it happened, when John did stumble, the audience stepped in to fill in the missing words,” he says. “We knew we had to build our campaign around that.”

“Since John is no longer able to perform we needed to make sure we continued to tell his story in a compelling way,” Madill says. “The best way to do this was to show how devastating it is when a singer forgets the words to his most popular song.”

The Music Project (originally called the iPod project) dates back to 2013, says Scott Russell, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. Towards the end of that first year, the organization brought on J. Walter Thompson (its original agency) to help raise the profile of the project. It began running an annual concert in 2015, following that up with shows in 2016 and 2017.

Over the years, the campaign has grown from being primarily about awareness to a charitable drive that is expected to raise around $90,000 this year, with the money going towards the purchase of iPods to be given to those afflicted with the disease.

“What’s interesting about how it’s progressed is that you see the progression of the disease with John,” Russell says. “At the very first, he was very much there, he was the frontman.” Over time, he took on a lesser role, only singing rather than playing, and then finally only being on stage. This year, he will not be in attendance. “The event has evolved from his effort as a champion to now being turned over to his friends.”

This year, Alzheimer Society of Toronto decided to hold the show in January to coincide with Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.