Review – Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

This extensive 8 CD sets collates the recordings made in the period 1974 to 1977 along with the 1984 album ‘The 13th Dream’ and tracks drawn from previously unreleased live concerts from 1974 and 1975. In fact, this set boasts 102 bonus track along with the albums ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ and this reveals the Mercury era to be a wonderful creative period for the band. Whilst hampered on many fronts, they still managed to overcome the obstacles and make some decent music once again.

The music is of its time certainly, but still shows that Randy California’s passion had not been eradicated. The story behind this period is excellently documented in the booklet that accompanies this set and, as always with these Spirit sets, the attention to detail to both preserve and celebrate the music is very laudable. With the death of California in 1996 in Hawaii, there is much that cannot be told now but these sets certainly help tell the story eloquently and with respect, admiration and dignity.

Spirit really deserve wider acclaim and affection than they received from music lovers, theirs was a niche sector and they continued to create worthy music throughout the years, as this set attests beautifully. Once again, Mick Skidmore has crafted a labour of love from myriad sources and compiled another fantastic selection of Spirit’s musical legacy.

This set has much to offer lovers of quality music and, when you factor in all the tracks, this represents the most comprehensive overview of the era in which Spirit worked for the Mercury label and pushed the boundaries in the way they knew best to create intelligent music for the discerning listener to enjoy and appreciate.

Disc 1 has the first three sides of the ‘Spirit of 76’ album, disc 2 has the fourth side of said album along with live bonus tracks from that time period. Disc 3 has the ‘Son of Spirit’ and the ‘Further Along’ albums plus a further four session outtakes and a live version of the track Farther Along from 1976, disc 4 has the ‘Future Games’ album from 1977 and eleven Further session tracks from 1976 and 1977. Disc 5 has the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ album along with six live cuts from Detroit in 1986 and disc 6, ‘Spirit of Salvation’, features unreleased studio material from 1974 and 1975. Disc 7 is a live set from Austin Texas in 1975, including a lengthy version of All The Same and, finally, disc 8 features an early version of the ‘Future Games’ album and a live set from the Array Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 which wraps the set up wonderfully.

There are many hours of inspiration and passion covered in this set and it is highly recommended as this brand really do deserve wider appreciation for their craft and diligence over the years.

For me the highlights are plentiful and include the fabulous Like A Rolling Stone on disc 1. Randy and the band show imaginative twists on well known songs and it’s always a delight to hear how they have they take a song and use it as a framework on which to deliver their own interpretation. This is seen elsewhere in the set with stunning re-imaginations of America The Beautiful, All Along The Watchtower, Hey Joe and Mr Tambourine Man all receiving such a treatment, delicately and sensitively covered with care and skill and a real joy to hear. these great. The highlights continue disc after disc, each capturing a band truly progressing musically. Some of which works well, others less so, but it’s always interesting and intriguingly done. Some of this set rocks hard and powerfully, it’s always good to hear Randy in full flight as he had a lightness of touch and was a very skilled player who could shred easily and with style. This is shown on the track Veruska where he really gets to cut loose a little, it’s simply wonderful to hear. Then we are treated to and echoplexed version of Hey Joe which shows that not only Hendrix could cover this song in a classy manner, Randy’s vocal adding emotion to a great version of the song.

These tracks are taken from side four of the ‘Spirit 76’ album and show what an underrated album that truly was, one that passed a lot of folk by. This sets offers an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate it again. With the benefit of the passing years, this album now shows a depth that it may have lacked previously. The album ends with The Star Spangled Banner, a version you’d least expect but, even so, it is an interesting take on a well known song. There’s a lot going on in the background and, musically, it’s mainly understated really. The bonus tracks include an alternative version of America The Beautiful that is a fabulous find and there are also some great live versions of several classic Spirit tracks live in Cleveland that show what a dynamic live outfit they could be.

It’s all a richly rewarding listen as the band ooze class and talent. Randy is in fine voice throughout these songs with some delicate masterful playing giving an excellent performance and revealing that he was widely overlooked in the public eye. More’s the pity as he deserved far more acclaim and recognition of his talents than he received during his lifetime.

The third disc comprises of two Spirit albums ‘Son of Spirit’ (1976) and ‘Farther Along’ (1977), both of which are fairly gentle sounding but with virtually a reunion of the original Spirit band, although John Locke had left again after the infamous Neil Young incident in Santa Monica in 1976 in which California had pushed a drunken Young out of his way as he was “singing badly out of key”.

The album has some good tracks, especially Family, but is all fairly mellow and lacks much guitar and some fire to lift the material to the fore. Circle is great, as is The Other Song, which benefits from having a strong groove to it and that allows for some improvisation to happen almost naturally. It all sounds impressive, as does the cover of Yesterday in which Randy’s guitar accompaniment is really tasteful and sounds glorious as a result. In fact, the beauty of this album really shows the more you hear it, it really is a fine collection of material.

The ‘Farther Along’ album follows afterwards and this is another good set of songs with the title track in particular being a bit of an unsung classic in reality. Another fantastic track is the rocker Mega Star that manages to embrace keyboard elements that are highly reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer, yes, really! It is a very impressive sounding track. The album also includes an orchestrated version of Nature’s Way that impresses. So, whilst not the strongest of albums, they certainly have moments of greatness and are worth reinvestigation.

‘Future Games’ is an interesting, but flawed, concept album that alludes to escaping the reality of everyday life and uses lots of sound snippets of shows like Star Trek and Batman etc. but it isn’t always an easy listening experience and generally falls short as a brave but flawed idea that is possibly best left in the midst of time. Far better is the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84)’ album which had a reunion of the full original Spirit line up, recorded on a soundstage in Hollywood and including both Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne tracks, which really sound great.

The other discs comprise of more outtakes, a live set from Austin Texas in 1975 and a demo version of the ‘Future Games’ album, along with some further live tracks from the Agora in Cleveland Ohio from 1975, which are certainly of interest to fans. Well I like them and I’m glad they are here, for me, any live Spirit is welcome as it’s live where the band used to shine most brightly.

In summary, this set is definitely extensive and is a well presented look into an era that is usually either dismissed or ignored but, in reality, it has gems throughout that are a worth investigating fully. The legacy of Spirit is comprehensively overhauled with great enthusiasm and love for a seminal band, long may this continue.

Released 8th October, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

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