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Review: "It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic recordings 1968 -1972" - Spirit

by Andy Snipper,

California 1967 sported two very different music scenes – the hippy ‘summer of love’ scene in San Francisco and a far more edgy and experimental scene in Los Angeles. Bridging the gap somewhat – although based in LA – was Spirit and if one band epitomised the changes and development of late sixties music it was them.

The lineup of the band from ‘Spirit’ through to ‘The 12 Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus’ was Randy California on guitar and his father-in-law Ed Cassidy on drums plus Mark Andes on bass & vocals, John Locke on keyboards and Jay Ferguson on percussion and vocals.

California had come from a musical family and when his mother married Ed Cassidy they moved to New York for the Jazz scene there. California (then Randy Wolfe) met Jimi Hendrix in a music store in New York and played with Jimi for some months at the Café Wha? In the Village. Between his mother’s folk roots, Cassidy’s jazz techniques and the Blues and rock & roll he learned playing with Hendrix the band Spirit was formed.

This set of 5 CDs only covers the first few years of the band but the music contained is remarkable. At times spacey and almost naïve but at others the music has incredible jazzy flow and a real jamming groove. You literally don’t know what the limits of the band might be. California’s guitar playing is exceptional, predominantly finger picking but also running into flights of improvisation and behind him is the drumming by Ed Cassidy, at one moment riding the cymbals and at others laying down a solid beat with few frills. Jay Ferguson’s vocals are high and keening and his percussion gives the band another element with which to experiment.

The albums range from the 1st album ‘Spirit’ which opens with ‘Fresh Garbage’, their take on consumerism and pollution and which re-appears a number of times through the band’s career, and ‘The Family That Plays Together’ which gave them their biggest hit with ‘I Got A Line On You’. Track 4 is a little ditty entitled ‘Taurus’; California claimed that Led Zeppelin ripped the track off for ‘Stairway To Heaven’ – make your own minds up.

CD2 takes you into the soundtrack from the ‘The Model Shop’ movie that shows their jazzy side and the ‘Clear’ album returning them to their rock roots but still offering some space and experimental touches.

CD three features the songs from ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’, probably their most complete album and a definite favourite with their worldwide fanbase. It eschews anything that feels like commerciality or trends but musically it represents a high point. The second album on this CD was recorded after a major band breakup with Jay Ferguson & Mark Andes leaving to form Jo Jo Gunne and California eased out after a serious head trauma and – probably acid based – mental issues. The sound is very different, straying into the boogie and country genres but still featuring Cassidy’s drumming and Locke’s keyboards.

Spirit never quite got the reputation they deserved. In part that is because they refused to follow the trends but also because they were consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The result is that these albums have a freshness about them that stands up today and anyone not intimately familiar with the band should delve in here to find some real gems.