This 1975 release on Mercury has Randy California and Ed Cassidy's names imprinted boldly on the cover as Spirit, and the 26 songs -- starting with "America the Beautiful/The Times They Are a Changin'" and concluding with "The Star Spangled Banner" -- are more than just a sly tribute to the bicentennial. They are the most fluid and satisfying statement by the California/Cassidy version of the band, who would be together for another 20 years before California's untimely passing. As ethereal and icy as Feedback, the album Cassidy recorded with the Stahely brothers, there are all sorts of hidden meanings projected throughout this double-vinyl LP. Randy California gives more than a few nods to his work with Jimi Hendrix -- covers of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Hey Joe" are two of Hendrix's more notable and triumphant revisions -- while "The Star Spangled Banner" has a smart vocal, separating it from California's more famous ex-bandmate's Woodstock instrumental rendition.
This double-record set was the first of four albums by Spirit for the Mercury label in the mid-'70s, all released between 1975-1977. This is the second album Ed Cassidy and Randy California put together after Cassidy recorded the Feedback disc in 1972 for Epic. The 1973 album came out in 1981 as Potatoland on Line Records in Germany and is not usually put in proper chronological order. What is musically interesting about this is that Randy California on Spirit of '76 sounds like the 1972 Stahely brothers version of Spirit. No, the jazz is not here, but his use of acoustic guitar and effects on his electric guitar makes for less bite and more soothing, spacy sounds. It is arguably the best full album the Randy California/Ed Cassidy Spirit recorded without the other original members. A terrific anthem, "One by One," was recorded in 1993-1994 and might be the duo's best song, but this album remains a major achievement for Randy California, a long and elaborate vision put over four sides of vinyl. The tragedy is that no hit single obtained airplay that could have given this project wider exposure. There are more covers than usual too, and unique arrangements -- the pair's understanding of "Happy," for example. It is interesting that producer Jimmy Miller played the drums and recorded the Rolling Stones' version of "Happy" with Keith Richards, with their Exile on Main St. demo track becoming a hit. Drummer Ed Cassidy takes Miller's role, with Randy California being Richards, and they do a nice, mutated version still faithful to the spirit of the original Keith Richards jam with his producer. The depth and intrigue built into the grooves and packaging of Spirit of '76 was a fine direction for this Spirit, and it is too bad Randy California felt so bitter about the industry to lose focus. As Jimi Hendrix kept the recorders rolling, California should have done the same thing over the years, capturing his live magic, seeking out that audience the Grateful Dead tuned into. Spirit of '76 is the best example of California veering off into different directions and coming up with satisfying sounds. Two albums later, Mark Andes would bring his brother, Matt Andes, from Jo Jo Gunne into the fold and re-form with Cassidy, California, and John Lockefor 1976's Farther Along. But that would be a short-lived fusion of multiple songwriting talents. On Spirit of '76, Randy California has all systems go to paint spacy pictures like "Urantia," or the very interesting take on Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog." The covers of three of the songs Hendrix covered would remain in the Spirit set for the rest of their days, and they are here in elegant studio versions. Spirit of '76 remains the key to understanding the group who toured as Spirit for the better part of the three decades that the group existed, the stepdad and the guitar prodigy on their own. It's an offbeat work of art that works just beautifully.