December 13, 2019

When the Rainbow encores finally come to the last song, California proceeds to invite the entire audience along to a party afterward in the lobby of their hotel!

Remember Spirit? You should. Emerging in the 1960s playing an eclectic mix of acid-flavoured rock, the band were led by Randy California, a young and mercurial guitar talent who owed much to the spirit (no pun intended) of Jimi Hendrix, with whom he had played. On the drum-stool was, somewhat unusually Randy’s father-in-law, the shaven headed Ed Cassidy. The original incarnation of the band was probably best remembered for their landmark 1970 album The Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus. After an album recorded without California in 1972, the band split in 1973 only to reconvene with Randy and Ed as a trio in 1974, setting the tone for their power-trio future with California taking over on lead vocals..

In 1978 the band played their first UK shows since the early ‘70s at London’s Rainbow Theatre, being called back for six encores, supposedly the most ever played at the venue. It is this show which is documented here – though that is only the start of the tale. The plans to record the show for a live album which would offset some of the tour costs appeared to be doomed when a microphone failure left much of the guitar unrecorded, and though California would help to produce an album released in the USA as Live Spirit by re-recording many of his guitar parts, the rest of the show, as originally played, seemed lost forever. At least until decades later when soundboard cassette recordings turned up which together contained virtually the whole performance – perhaps not as sonically perfect as the planned album recordings, but nevertheless the music as it was played.

In 2011 these recordings appeared, remastered by Spirit curator and archivist Martin Skidmore, together with the original Live Spirit album for comparison. Sadly, the album wasn’t so much released as it sneaked out under cover of darkness, and it failed to make much impression as it was largely overlooked by media and public alike. It deserved much better, and thankfully Esoteric have ridden to the rescue here by giving the album a new lease of life, with further remastering fairy-dust from Skidmore, new (improved) packaging and a new set of notes from only surviving member from the band, bassist Larry ‘Fuzzy’ Knight. So here it is, the whole show – with the main set on Disc One with the lengthy encores plus the Live Spirit album on the second disc.

This is a very good thing, as this is essential stuff for both fans of the band and lovers of guitar excellence everywhere. The show opens rather strangely with a spacey, seemingly improvised six-minute piece entitled Rainbow Jam Electro Jam – though strangely it works, as despite its meandering development and repeated stoned mumbling of the title phrase, it somehow worms its way into the head of the listener and certainly appeared to have the audience transfixed on the night. Several Spirit classics are given an airing, including Nature’s Way, I Got A Line On You, Mr Skin, Animal Zoo and Turn To The Right, but there is also a strong Hendrix thread running through proceedings with covers of Hey Joe, All Along The Watchtower and a coruscating Stone Free. There’s also a rendition of Like A Rolling Stone in the style that Hendrix used to perform it live, as well as Wild Thing, which he made his own on stage. It is on these tracks that much of Randy California’s guitar genius manifests itself most impressively, and also highlights the similarity of his own laconic drawl to Hendrix’s own underrated vocal style. One work of warning, however – the 17-minute All The Same includes a drum solo lasting for over twelve of those minutes, so that one should be approached with some caution!

It’s fascinating to hear the Live Spirit album after this performance, as it undoubtedly sounds excellent, and yet the overdubs sound rather jarring once the source material has been heard without them. The song selection is also odd, with two of the nine tracks being studio recordings with crowd noises added – of these, the opener Rock And Roll Planet is very good, while These Are Words is markedly less so. Of the other seven tracks, many of the best performances are omitted despite room being found for the dreaded All The Same, though this is edited down to a more palatable ten minutes.

When the Rainbow encores finally come to the last song, California proceeds to invite the entire audience along to a party afterward in the lobby of their hotel – we can only imagine the delighted reaction of the management and staff of the Metropole Hotel to the invasion which must have followed! Such was the way back then, especially with free-spirited and, let’s face it, probably happily stoned bands such as this. The world has changed for certain.

As an interesting footnote, the original show was a triple bill, with support coming from the largely forgotten punk/new wave outfit Alternative TV. And bottom of the bill below them? Why that would be a pre-fame performance by none other than The Police. Some gigs really make you wish you’d been there. If you weren’t, this is the next best thing for sure. A sobering thought that not only are two thirds of the band no longer with us, but the famous old venue is also long gone. Still, memories are made of albums like this.