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Spirit - Spirit Of '76 CD (album) cover

SPIRIT OF '76

Spirit

 

Proto-Prog

3.52 | 22 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars This album was an unlikely release for Randy California and Ed Cassidy, the odd jazz drummer and step-son pair who originally formed Spirit back in 1967 when Randy was only sixteen years old but was a veteran of one of Jimi Hendrix’s early lineups and already had bi-coastal experience playing in the United States. The first four Spirit albums are noted for their distinctive blend of Cassidy and keyboardist John Locke’s jazz leanings, and California’s west-coast simple but emotive free-form guitar arrangements. With all but Cassidy departing the band between 1970 and 1971, Spirit went through a period of shifting lineups that at one point lacked any of the original band members.

But fate shown on the band in the mid-seventies when a renewed interest in their early music led to a reunion between Cassidy and California, who had been living in Hawaii while have little commercial or critical success with his barely-managed solo career. The two formed a touring group in early 1975 to try and capitalize on the reissue of most of the band’s catalog, and when headliner Ten Years After canceled an appearance for a show in Florida that spring opening act Spirit grabbed the opportunity to turn the booking into a solo show, after which they used the proceeds to enter a local studio for several days and record some of the original compositions California had stocked up while secluded in Hawaii the previous few years. The sessions must have been cathartic, friendly, and even a bit spiritual for the two, since the result was hours of tracks that included unique interpretations of several rock standards, some classic American folk, and even a couple of proto-rock covers that were probably contributed by Cassidy. The two also enlisted former Zappa soundman Barry Keene to fill in the bass parts.

Cassidy recognized the quality of these recordings and the opportunity to leverage the brief resurgence in the band’s popularity and convinced his manager to peddle the tracks to Mercury. Despite some well-documented squabbles with California, the label signed the band to a four record deal and issued this two-disc set of some of the Florida session’s best tracks. The unusual artwork was provided by off-beat artist and general wack-job Burt Shonberg. Shonberg was in the midst of a ‘napkin art’ phase at the time, and had also taken to calling himself Jack Bond and pointedly refusing to produce any art that could be perceived as patriotic. A true child of the sixties. But California was a sort of patriot in the Guthrie vein and wanted a suitable image for the album he intended as a tribute to America’s bicentennial, and Shonberg was a fan of California’s and considered the guitarist to be a spiritual guru of sorts, as did many others of the music industry at that time. So eventually Shonberg produced the front and back artwork for the album that features a sort of ‘fear and loathing’ version of the American flag (really, you have to look closely). California included two short tracks dedicated to ‘Jack Bond’ on the album as a tribute to his weird little friend. Shonberg unfortunately passed away shortly after this album was released.

The music opens with a hybrid version of “America the Beautiful” and Dylan’s “The Times they are a Changing” that clearly show California’s debt to his time with Hendrix, as well as showcases his unflaggingly upbeat and nostalgic personality. One of the more unique and poignant versions of this Dylan classic that I’ve heard. “Victim of Society” shows more of California’s empathetic side, and while the mix is a bit muddy the music is surprisingly commercial-sounding for a Spirit recording. One has to wonder if California (or more likely Cassidy) had hopes of turning a few bucks even prior to the record deal that followed these sessions. Same goes for “Lady of the Lakes”, a sort of Bad Company-meets the Eagles typical mid-seventies soft rock number.

California resurrects the theremin sound from his early days with “Mauna Loa”, a Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’-sounding tune that pays tribute to the place Randy had been living in Hawaii. Sadly it was on a Mauna Loa beach he would perish by drowning twenty-two years later. There are backing vocals here that may be California himself, or possibly Keene – not sure, but they add flavor to the Beach Boys harmony effect. “Sunrise” offers more of the same but without the layered vocals.

Cassidy seems to have asserted himself with “Walking the Dog”, a Rufus Thomas hard-core blues tune from the Mephis Stax Records days where California abandons the mellow and largely acoustic sounds for some wailing heavy blues and Cassidy seems to come alive for the first time in the disc. Dated yes, but a lively and tight interpretation of a forgotten tune.

“Joker on the Run” is Pete Seeger-like throwback, quite folkish but with Cassidy’s jazz history showing through on percussion, while “When?” reverts back to the introspective, slow and acoustic mood that opened the album.

But the best of the first disc is saved for last, and this is the one that would cause me to pick this album up over and over even if the rest were filled with Duran Duran covers. California builds slowly and spends a bit too much time with the audio echoing, but this nine-minute, west-coast flavored and highly rhythmic electric version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” showcases every single thing about Spirit that have endeared them to me for so many years. California is reverent of Dylan’s words, but light-hearted and playful with the music, turning the folk lament into almost a celebration of freedom, sunny days, long hair, and a complete lack of personal obligation or responsibility. Another one of those great driving songs, and one that evokes a very strong mood of warm, lazy summer days. I really can’t say enough about this track, except – find it, listen to it, then listen to it again. Absolutely soul-cleansing!

I have to say the second disc is a bit more diluted than the first, although at times the band seems to have recaptured their sound from the late sixties with the jazzy rhythms and free-flowing guitar accompaniment. This is particularly evident on “Feeling in Time”, “Guide Me”, and even a bit on the feedback-heavy “Veruska”. “Happy” and “My Road” are more rocking numbers that are catchy and commercial, but it’s still nice to hear California’s soulful voice and cheerful guitar playing.

The Hendrix tribute continues with California’s spiritual and slow rendition of “Hey Joe”, probably the second strongest track on the album even if this is well-known as a filler for just about any musician whose album needs to add several minutes to make a complete record. Same goes with the closing “Star Spangled Banner” I suppose, but here Spirit is much more restrained than Hendrix ever was and the song comes off as almost a hippie-like anthem (which is surely exactly what Randy California intended).

Spirit fans speak of this as the ‘Unplugged’ version of Spirit, and for the most part that’s what it is even though most of the tracks include at least some electric guitar and most have electric bass. But the mood is much more relaxed and spiritual than any of the band’s early records, and much closer to what California would go on to do for the rest of his life, both with Spirit and with his solo work. I can’t give this less than four stars just because of “Like a Rolling Stone” and Randy California’s consistently engaging guitar playing. This isn’t an essential classic, but it sure is a great album and lots of fun to listen to if you dig the west coast sound, or are a Spirit or Randy California fan, or like to hear creative interpretations of cover tunes, or just enjoy smooth and upbeat guitar music. So four stars and recommended to all the people who fit that description.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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