Review: Spirit, Son of Spirit / Farther Along
I’ve long thought that Spirit was one of the most, perhaps the most, innovative and exciting band to emerge from the vibrant California music scene of the late 1960s. Spirit combined rock, pop, jazz, folk, blues and classical influences into an amalgam that sounded like no one else before or since. The members of the original quintet (Jay Ferguson, vocals; Randy California, guitar; John Locke, keyboards; Mark Andes, bass; and Ed Cassidy, drums) ranged in age from 17 (California) to 37 (Cassidy) when they released their self-titled first album in 1967. Three of the first four albums (“Spirit”, “The Family That Plays Together” and “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardoncus”) are terrific and I’ve returned consistently to all of them with renewed enjoyment, especially “Spirit”, every few years since they were released.
Frustration at their lack of commercial success led to the break up of the original group after “Sardonicus”. The years since have seen a bewildering array of “Spirit” albums put out by various combinations of the original members. Most of these albums centered around California until he died in a freak swimming accident in 1997. “Son of Spirit / Farther Along” reissues two of those albums on a single CD without any additional tracks.
Reissues of Spirit’s albums are often accompanied by liner notes that reverently gush over Randy California’s musical genious and deep spiritual personality. It’s too much and, at least to my ears, it isn’t borne out in the music. California was a creative and highly talented guitar player who developed into a competant songwriter. Ferguson wrote almost all the songs on “Spirit” with California contributing one tune. Over the next three albums California’s contributions grew both as a solo songwriter and as a collaborator with Ferguson. California wrote or cowrote all of the tunes save one on “Son of Spirit / Farther Along” and therein lies one of the weaknesses of these two albums. When they began in 1967 Spirit’s songs, mostly written by Ferguson, sounded inventive and innovative. By 1975 and ’76 when these two albums were released California was writing songs that often sounded highly derivative of the original Spirit sound or like fairly innocous soft-pop. In addition, his lyrics could be, at times, excruciatingly banal or hippy-dippy spiritual. Another problem is that California was not a very good singer and his insistence on fronting the reformed versions of the band as singer / songwriter/ guitar player was not always such a good idea.
My first thought on listening to “Son of Spirit / Farther Along” was “Egad! What happened to these guys? This is dreadful.” But further listening led to the conclusion that my initial response was a mistake, at least as far as “Farther Along” is concerned. “Son of Spirit” was basically California and Cassidy building tracks in the studio. The less said about it the better. The attraction here for fans of the original band will be “Farther Along” which saw the entire band reunited with the exception of Ferguson. In addition, Mark Andes’ brother Matt joined the group on second guitar and backup vocals. The record is a pale reflection of the original band and Ferguson’s absence is strongly felt. However even a pale reflection will hold some interest for fans of the original group. The extraordinarily eclectic mix of musical interests that characterized the early Spirit is back although they often sound like they are reprising their old sound rather than exploring new territory like they did in the beginning. There are some good tunes here and fans of the original band will probably enjoy hearing 80% of the band they love back in action with new material.
If you like innovative, exciting and utterly unique music and haven’t heard Spirit, by all means give their debut album “Spirit” a listen. It’s great. Leave “Son of Spirit / Farther Along” on the shelf. If you are a die hard Spirit fan who hasn’t heard these albums, I’d say it’s a tough call. On the one hand, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to hear California, Cassidy, Locke and Andes playing together, on the other, I don’t expect I’ll listen to this CD much, if at all, after writing this review. I’ll always return to Spirit but when I do “Spirit”, “The Family That Plays Together” and “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardoncus” are the albums that’ll go into the CD player.
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