Watch: Spirit Live on Rockpalast ‘78

 

In 1978, reincarnated as a power trio, the
critically-acclaimed ‘60s combo was forging a new legacy for itself – as a
long-coveted concert, now on DVD, attests. See clip from the show, below.

 

By Rev.
Keith A. Gordon

 

 

I’ll tally
not a moment to consider this, nor brook any argument otherwise, but Spirit was the great lost band of the 1960s.

 

The band
was formed in 1967 by five talented musicians that had healthy mixed backgrounds
in folk, jazz, blues, and rock, and their unique musical chemistry brought all
of these elements to the table. The original Spirit line-up cranked out four
critically-acclaimed albums in the space of three short years, culminating in
the 1970-released landmark Twelve Dreams
of Dr. Sardonicus
. Along the way, Spirit scored a 25 hit with the song
“I Got A Line On You” from the band’s 1968 album The Family That Plays Together, which itself would inch into the
Top 30 of the charts.

 

By 1978,
though, Spirit had all but dropped off the edge of the major label radar, the
band’s tumultuous history leaving just guitarist Randy California and his
stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy, holding the reins of this once-proud rock ‘n’
roll innovator. These two talents carried the Spirit torch through the 1980s
and into the late ’90s with numerous cobbled-together rosters, this impressive
marathon sprint resulting in roughly a dozen live and studio releases on
numerous independent labels. They would fall short of the finish line, though,
with California’s tragic death in 1997 while
trying to save his young son from a vicious undertow while swimming in Hawaii, the guitarist
believed drowned.

 

In March
1978, however, California and Cassidy, along
with bass player Larry “Fuzzy” Knight, took Spirit to Germany
for a live performance to be broadcast by the legendary Rockpalast television show. (First aired in 1974 and continuing to
this day, Rockpalast, translated as
“Rock Palace,” has broadcast performances from, literally, hundreds of
rock, blues, jazz and other artists – from reggae legends like Bob Marley and
Black Uhuru to prog-rockers like Camel and Spock’s Beard, from jazz-fusion
bands like Weather Report to rockers like Tom Petty and Them Crooked Vultures.)
On this night, in Essen, Germany, Spirit held court for
nearly two hours in front of an enthusiastic audience, and the show –
long-coveted by fans and collectors – has been released in its entirety as Rockpalast: West Coast Legends Vol. 3, part
of an ongoing series by WDR Media/SPV (www.spiv.de).

 

The show
opens with the mighty Ed Cassidy banging away on the cans in his trademarked
fluid, rhythmic manner, pounding out a hybrid rock, blues, and jazz solo that
exhibits the best qualities of all three genres. Gradually, the rest of the
trio glides in on a steely wind, the band freestyling the “Rockpalast
Jam” with a monster bass line courtesy of Knight, and frontman Randy
California’s incendiary fretwork. The jam shows all that was good about
California’s guitar style, technique picked up at the knee of the one and only
Jimi Hendrix when Randy was a mere teen. Since those first lessons with the
master, the student had expanded his sonic palette into an impressive musical
weapon.

 

 

Fully
engaged with the Rockpalast crowd,
Spirit cranks-n-spanks a set of well-chosen covers and golden oldies…and these
songs really are pure rock ‘n’ roll
gold, mined from the vastly underrated Spirit catalog circa 1968-1970. The fan
favorite “Mr. Skin,” referring to drummer Cassidy’s bald dome,
suffers from the lack of the original version’s lush, moody instrumentation and
full band harmonies behind then-frontman Jay Ferguson (who split from Spirit to
form Jo Jo Gunne around 1971 and was riding a crest of solo success by ’79).
The three-piece Spirit makes up for these shortcomings with amplification and
audacity, California
kicking up dust with the song’s now-familiar solo, his use of sustain and
feedback creating a glorious din.

 

The timeless
“Nature’s Way,” another gem from the band’s wonderful Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus LP, floats
in with a mesmerizing blend of lofty vocals and ethereal instrumentation, the
song’s complex construction revealing itself in due time as California lets
loose with a multi-colored solo full of reckless energy and shimmering beauty. The
previously-unreleased (in 1978) “Hollywood Dream” was a new addition
to the Spirit canon at the time, and the song rocks like a scalded dog,
California’s lyrics inspired by life lived by these journeyman rockers.
Knight’s bass throbs mechanically like a jackhammer, Cassidy’s Godzilla-sized
drumbeats echo like the voice of god, and California’s raffish fretwork rattles
and buzzes like a jackknife comet.

 

Originally
released on 1969’s Clear album, California’s prescient “1984” – inspired by
George Orwell’s dystopian novel – would ironically run into censorship by U.S.
radio programmers worked into a lather about the song’s anti-authoritarian
lyrics. This live performance is even better than the LP original, imbued with
menace by a bass line on a bombing run and California’s somber vocals and molten
string-pulling. The guitarist channels his mentor Jimi with a lively cover of
the garage-rock classic “Hey Joe.” The trio adds to Hendrix’s
considerable cover of the song with dirtier sound, fatter bass, and a barrage
of drumbeats. California doesn’t so much as mimic Jimi’s electrifying original
solo as exaggerates it times ten, throwing in jazzy licks and metallic riffs
alongside the prerequisite blood, sweat, and tears. The performance is riotous,
chaotic, and entirely rocking….

 

Another Twelve Dreams cut, “Animal
Zoo,” is necessarily sparser than the original, but California’s vocals flow effortlessly
through the song’s difficult lyrical meter. Knight’s bass covers the rhythm
originally provided by a second guitarist, and the song devolves at some point
to an improvised reprise of the “Rockpalast Jam” before ending in an
abrupt blurt. The obligatory 1970s-era drum solo is accommodated by “It’s
All The Same,” Cassidy’s blistering speed and innate rhythmic sense put to
the test by two of the largest drums that I’ve ever seen, the legendary cult
drummer performing a portion of the impressive solo sans sticks or mallet.

 

Spirit’s
biggest hit, “I Got A Line On You,” is revved-up and rocked-out with
all the trappings you need for a great performance: blastbeat drums, a humming
bass line, and the song’s own integral riff – familiar to any listener whose
sense of rock ‘n’ roll history extends back further into the mists of time than
Creed or Limp Bizkit. California
spits out the lyrics at a breakneck speed, hands clawing at his instrument,
frantically trying to keep up with the pace as the song seemingly takes on a
life of its own like some sort of evil golem. After a dozen fine performances,
the band leaves the stage, only to return for an encore nearly half as long…and
every bit as energetic…as the main show.

 

Another
nod to Hendrix is made with Spirit’s inspired cover of Dylan-by-way-of-Jimi on
“All Along The Watchtower,” which California first put on wax a year earlier on
the Future Games album. This classic
rock treasure has been recorded by everybody from Dave Mason and Neil Young to
the Dream Syndicate and Eddie Vedder. While Jimi’s version remains the gold
standard above all others, this rendition by Spirit kicks ass like a steel-toed
boot. Although California’s vocals sound a bit tired by now, and the rhythmic backdrop
is, unfortunately, more subdued that I would prefer, when California breaks
into his inevitable solo, the whole thing explodes like a shotgun shell fired
at a rotten pumpkin. While Randy attempts to take the song, note-by-note, soaring
into some otherworldly stratosphere, Cassidy’s tribal drumbeats keep the
performance grounded on Mother Earth.

 

A second
encore brings “Downer (Tampa Jam),” a short, shock rocker that bleeds
into a good ol’ fashioned hippie jam. The broadcast closes with “If I Miss
This Train,” a bluesy guitar-driven number on which California is assisted by Allman Brothers
Band guitarist Dickey Betts, whose band Great Southern had performed earlier
that night before Spirit. At the time, Rockpalast was an open-ended broadcast, i.e. the show was over when the amps stopped
buzzing, which allowed the producers to capture magical moments like this on
tape. California
and Betts duel like a couple of grizzled gunfighters, the Spirit guitarist
pursuing a tough-as-nails, caked-in-mud sound while Betts’ sweet Southern tones
display plenty of down-home twang and honey-covered soul.

 

Spirit’s West Coast Legends Vol. 3 is a fine
addition to the Rockpalast series,
the DVD preserving the band’s historical performance on video, a rare recording
of this particular Spirit line-up. Some of these performances have been previously-released
on albums of dubious provenance – like 1997’s Made In Germany – and West
Coast Legends Vol. 3
is also available on CD in truncated form. Skip the
shorter CD and go for the full-blown DVD to get the entire, mind-blowing Spirit
musical experience.

     

 

 

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