Guitarist Randy California was a child prodigy in the right place at the right time, artistically speaking. His uncle ran a jazz and blues club, and the young Randy learned his licks firsthand from greats such as Lightnin Hopkins, Doc Watson, Jesse Fuller, and Sleepy John Estes, who would routinely pay visits to Randy's family between gigs.

When he was 15 years old and living in New York City, Randy befriended Jimmy James (soon to move to England and record as the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and played in his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, for three months.

In the meantime, a seasoned jazz drummer, Ed "Cass" Cassidy, had not only begun gigging with Randy, but had married Randy's mother, effectively making their musical partnership truly a family affair (which was to last until Randy's death).

The initial line-up of Spirit was thus born. Combining the diverse talents of blues musicians (Randy California on guitar and Mark Andes on bass), two jazz musicians (Ed Cassidy on drums and John Locke on electric piano), and a classical buff with a knack for songwriting (vocalist Jay Ferguson), Spirit had all the ingredients necessary to make truly eclectic, genre-defying music.

Although this lineup was only together for four years, their recorded output remains astounding and way ahead of its time; few bands in history have ever pulled off such an accessible yet challenging fusion of song-oriented rock and jazz (Phish and Steely Dan come to mind).

The First Four Albums (1967-1970)

Many regard Spirit's first four albums (the only ones with the original lineup) to be the definitive work released by the band, and it's hard to disagree. Each successive release points to directions rarely traveled by rock bands, much less rock bands with an eye on the charts.

In the wake of the overhyped Summer of Love, the members of Spirit retreated to a house in Topanga Canyon, and laid the groundwork for their debut album.

This album is definitely in the running for their best album ever, with a quietly brilliant hybrid of jazz/blues/folk/classical that has rarely, if ever, been equaled.

Vocalist Jay Ferguson is the focus of the album, writing the majority of the material, which consists of odd, seemingly slight short songs (such "Fresh Garbage" and "Straight Arrow") which veer suddenly into brief, jazz-inflected jams without notice.

Although Randy California mainly plays a supporting role on this album (in contrast to later on), his ringing, heavily sustained guitar presence is felt on the bizarre "Mechanical World" (ironically, their first single, written about Andes' fear of death when he was suffering from the flu), John Locke's 10-minute jazz instrumental "Elijah" (featuring solos by all the instrumentalists), and the sublime instrumental break in "Gramophone Man." He also lends a delicate touch on the acoustic guitar on his own composition, the pastoral instrumental "Taurus", complete with a great string arrangement (by Marty Paich) and harpsichord. Legend has it that "Taurus" directly inspired Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", with its similar mood and identical opening acoustic guitar figure - the fact that Led Zeppelins opened for Spirit on their first US tour in December 68 makes that connection even more certain.

The re-release of Spirit's first album is notable mostly for its four superb bonus tracks, a couple of which nearly surpass the tracks on the original release. The extended jazz instrumental "Elijah" is represented here in an alternate take that nearly puts the original to shame (especially in the guitar and bass solos performed by California and Andes, respectively). The other three bonus tracks further highlight the jazzy element of the band, emphasizing instrumental interplay over songs; imagine the Soft Machine circa 1970 (say, "Slightly All the Time" or "Esther's Nose Job") with Hendrix-like guitar instead of sax, and you'll get a feeling for what's going down. On the down side, the re-release tries a bit too hard to brighten the sound, and is a bit top-heavy on the frequencies. The added emphasis on the cymbals and tambourines can be a bit wearing after a while. The guitar sounds better that ever, though.

The Family That Plays Together. The title says it all. This was probably the "happiest" period in Spirit's history, and this superb album is a testimony to the sheer joy of creation (notwithstanding the somber tone of many of the songs). Not only does it contain much of their best music, but it yielded a massive hit single in "I Got a Line on You" (penned by Randy California, an assertion of his increased presence as a songwriter). The remainder of the album is split between California's and Ferguson's songs, and nearly all of it is excellent. Avoiding stagnation, the material has been stripped of its overt jazz tendencies, opting instead for a more subtle hybrid of styles. "It Shall Be", co-written by California and Locke, combines a fluid electric piano riff with flute, an orchestral arrangement, and a beautiful vocal melody. Ferguson's "Drunkard" features one of the best orchestral arrangements (for a rock song) in recent memory, and his "Dream Within a Dream" reaches heavenly peaks as well. The album rocks too, with the concert favorite "It's All the Same" and the joyous "Aren't You Glad".

The re-release of The Family That Plays Together is one the truly great works of remastering I have ever heard. The bass sounds absolutely perfect. The impeccable attention to detail makes the great songs even better, and sheds new light on the lesser tracks. This album, and particularly this re-release, is highly recommended to all readers out there. Spirit's unique approach is accessible while paying so much attention to nuance and detail. To boot, the re-release contains 4 bonus tracks, one of which (Ferguson's "Now or Anywhere") ranks as one of my favorite Spirit songs.

Now things get a bit more complicated. Having declined an invitation to open for Hendrix at Woodstock (and regretting it afterwards), Spirit's spirit began to decline. Their third album Clear consists partly of instrumentals intended for soundtrack material (some were used in the film "The Model Shop"), with the balance filled in with rock songs which were odd but impressive, displaying Spirit's increasingly wide stylistic range. Despite the scattershot nature of the album's contents, just about every track is great, especially "Dark Eyed Woman", their hardest rocker yet (though a single of it failed to chart), "New Dope in Town", with its tough piano riff and dramatic middle section, and the bluesy Clapton-like "I'm Truckin'". Two concert favorites "Apple Orchard" and "So Little Time To Fly" are included, as well as the title track - a beautiful classical guitar piece by California. And it's hard to argue against the quality of Locke's jazzy instrumentals "Ice" and "Caught", both of which display a finesse lacking in the works of their contemporaries.

The reissue of Clear has appropriately clear (no pun intended) sound, and includes another single ("1984" / "Sweet Stella Baby") as bonus material. Written by Randy California, "1984" (which charted briefly in December 69 before being jettisoned by radio tip sheets) now seems rather dated with its awkward and controversial lyrical content (it's remained a concert favorite, though, and still has a certain edge in live performance as an energetic rocker), and its B-side by Jay Ferguson is a throwaway. "Fuller Brush Man," another bonus track (by Ferguson) is a real winner though: Spirit at its weirdest. As good an album as Clear is, it gave little indication of the wide-eyed brilliance which was to distinguish their next release.

The Twelve Dreams Of Dr.Sardonicus is considered by many to be the quintessential Spirit album, and the only one which has remained in print in the US throughout the years. At this point, Spirit decided to pull out all the stops, and make an album that would finally put their creative energies in the limelight. The sound and production values of this album are so advanced for their time that it's hard to believe it was recorded in 1970 (I felt similarly on my first hearing of 1973's Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd). The songs run together, often using voices and sound effects as links (not unlike Sgt. Pepper), enhancing the conceptual feel and flow of the album's contents. "Prelude - Nothin' to Hide" kicks off the album in true rocking style, notwithstanding a delicate acoustic guitar intro. Randy California's "Nature's Way" is next, and is simply one of the most poignant, memorable songs of the early 70s. The rest of the album doesn't let up either. Whether through the manic rocking of Ferguson's songs ("Street Worm", "When I Touch You", "Mr. Skin") or through the gentler strains of California's songs ("Soldier", "Why Can't I be Free", "Life Has Just Begun") or the trailblazing experimentalism of John Locke's contributions ("Space Child" and "Love Has Found a Way", two of the earliest compositions to utilize Moog synthesizers), this album hits bullseyes from start to finish. Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn't feel the same way, the album sold only moderately, and the band broke up, frustrated and spent.

The re-release of Dr. Sardonicus contains 4 bonus tracks, including alternate mixes of "Morning Will Come" and "Animal Zoo" which are unspectacular but historically interesting. The other two tracks point to the 70s direction of Spirit: more straightforward, simple arrangements fronted by the expressive guitar of Randy California