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Spirit — Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus - Deluxe Edition
(Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22792, 1970/2022, 2CD)

by Peter Thelen, Published 2022-03-13

Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus - Deluxe Edition Cover art

From 1968 to 1970 Spirit released four of the most uncompromising albums in the annals of West Coast rock, informed by jazz (both drummer Ed Cassidy and keyboardist / composer John Locke were previously jazz players), blues, psychedelic (guitarist / singer / composer Randy California had played with Hendrix in New York prior to the launch of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and bassist Mark Andes had played with Canned Heat), and singer, percussionist and composer Jay Ferguson had a background in folk-rock. With three excellent writers on board, the band was signed to producer Lou Adler’s Ode label for their first three albums, during which time the band received a fair amount of FM airplay and even managed to score a top-40 hit with “I Got a Line on You.” Around the time of the “1984” single (which the band produced themselves), Adler traded Spirit to Epic Records, which brought them into the orbit of producer David Briggs, a friend of Locke who had been working with Neil Young on some of his recent albums. Briggs, along with the writing team of Ferguson, Locke, and California, would give the band’s fourth album, Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus, its very adventurous and inspired studio performances, like none other before it. The album featured some great rockers like “Prelude / Nothin' to Hide,” “Street Worm,” “When I Touch You,” “Morning Will Come,” and “Mr. Skin,” as well as some folkier numbers like “Nature’s Way,” “Why Can’t I Be Free,” “Soldier,” and somewhat quirky pieces like “Animal Zoo,” “Love Has Found a Way,” and “Life Has Just Begun.” Not to be missed is John Locke’s dreamy instrumental epic “Space Child.” There isn’t a bad song on this album anywhere, and it still stands strong fifty years after its original release. The album has been remastered by Spirit archivist Mick Skidmore; I have heard many versions of the album over the years, both LPs and CDs, and I think this one sounds by far the best. The original album occupies about half of disc one of this set, with nine studio bonus tracks (B-sides, out takes, mono single versions, backing tracks) and a live version of “Nature’s Way” at Fillmore West on May 16, 1970 — the song was written only hours earlier that same day.

Disc two of this set is taken from the remainder of that same May 16th concert (sixteen tracks) plus an extended drum solo into “Mechanical World” pulled in from a Boston Tea Party show in October 1969. Several early live versions of Sardonicus material are here (“Mr. Skin,” “Nothin' to Hide,” “Animal Zoo”), amid a number of songs from their existing catalog. The opener is “Sweet Stella Baby,” the B-side of the “1984” single which follows it. Then come a couple of real treats: California’s “Country Echo,” essentially a solo piece inside an echo loop, and the piece that always followed it, the Ferguson / California collaboration “Jealous”; neither of those songs have ever been released in studio versions, but I remember them well from almost every concert they played in that period. Another curiosity is the seven-plus minute version of “Fog,” an instrumental piece that began life as a short two-minute vignette from the Model Shop soundtrack (also included as a bonus track on The Family That Plays Together CD), although the live version here is far more expansive, with an enegetic intro and plenty of improvisation; the version here seems to have more in common with the “Trancas Fog-Out” instrumental from the Feedback album. “Ice” (from Clear) sounds great here in a live setting as well. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of surviving live recordings by the original five-piece Spirit, and this one, like others I’ve heard, is far from perfect. Yet it provides some special insight into what their live shows were like back in the day. In all, this deluxe edition of Sardonicus certainly delivers the goods.

Filed under: Archives, 2022 releases, 1970 recordings

Related artist(s): Spirit, Randy California

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