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SON OF AMERICA

Spirit

 

Proto-Prog

3.00 | 1 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
3 stars I'd like to think I'm as jaded as anyone when it comes to compilation album releases by off- brand labels that are just trying to capitalize on a big artist's name to schlep off a few sub- grade collections of covers, b-sides, outtakes and obscure live recordings. And Spirit has been as much a victim of that sort of pandering as any band, partly because of their lackadaisical approach to management over the years and probably a little of their own doing as well. So I was skeptical when I heard about this release from 2005, nearly a decade after Randy California's death and long after the band had ceased to be anything resembling a relevant musical force. Coming on the heels of the very weak 'Blues from the Soul' and the Mojo white-label collection I didn't expect anything better from this one, issued on the Evageline label but actually part of the Acadia catalog. This record sort of reminds of me the way Marc Bolan's 2002 'Futuristic Dragon' Rhino Records compilation/ reissue was put together; a combination of discarded gems, filler and alternate versions of an older record but tastefully and lovingly arranged for fans by someone who is himself clearly a fan.

So to my surprise independent producer Mick Skidmore has put together a really excellent collection of songs (yes, some are covers and some are outtakes) that present a side of Randy California and Friends that is quite a bit different than the stoner blues or proto-prog nostalgia that dominate most of the other releases since California's 1996 death. Yes, there are the obligatory Dylan covers Randy had a tendency to crank out throughout his career, in this case including an earthy, reverent version of "The Times They Are a Changin'". California and drummer Ed Cassidy covered the same song on 'Spirit of 76' but this version is much more crisp, well-executed and almost devoid of cannabis residue which makes it even more memorable.

And there are quite a few original tracks as well, although pretty much all of them are from California as was most of the band's output from the late-seventies and onward. Some like the opening "Space Jam" are typical Randy fare consisting of virtuoso trippy-hippy guitar with Cassidy's always perfectly-matched drum work (and in this case bass and some backing vocals courtesy of the band's first bassist Mark Andes). In fact every one of the original band members including the elusive guitarist Jay Ferguson get in on the act at one point or another, these tracks having been collected from the last ten or fifteen years of California's life. The 'Sai Jam' trio of interludes fit this category as well, as does the throwback dirge "2007".

But there are some really surprising gems here as well. One comes early on the first disc with the character sketch "Thomas Q and Jennifer" which shows that despite all his persona as a Woodstock-era relic, the guy could still write a poignant and relevant, poppish tune with some real meat to it even long after his name had faded from the limelight (the late John Locke, himself an original Spirit member, delivers a gorgeous piano recitation on this song). And "Gopal" combines Randy's extensive psych and Eastern musical experiences with a fairly melodic punch.

The second disc is quite odd. Most of it comes from alternate versions of the songs that ended up on 'Cosmic Smile', one of the more obscure Spirit records and really more of a Randy California solo collection. "The River" comes from 'California Blues' and is one of my favorite songs from that album; this is a slightly different version but retains the loose and casual feeling of the original. "Denise" is another original tune which I'd not heard before and is a great and rare example of a keyboard-driven California instrumental. There are other oddities on the second disc as well but for the most part just hearing different versions of 'Cosmic Smile' make the few extra dollars worth it.

This isn't a masterpiece of course, and I don't know of any compilation that is, not even any Greatest Hits albums except possibly the Eagles 2-disc epic. But it is definitely a better collection than most of the other stuff I've seen pushed out under the Spirit banner over the past decade or so. Mick Skidmore has put together other Spirit collections as well as a couple of large Randy California compilations, and of them all this is the best one I've heard yet. Three stars out of five for sure, probably four if you are a hardcore fan ("Space Jam" alone will likely nail it for true fans). Well recommended if you are even a casual Spirithead.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 3/5 |

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