Spirit – ‘The Complete Potatoland’ (2019)
Following the relative lack of success of their master work ‘12 Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus’ in 1970, Spirit’s original lineup splintered, with vocalist Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes forming Jo Jo Gunne and guitarist Randy California being temporarily disabled due to injuries suffered from a horse riding accident.
A 1972 album, ‘Feedback’ featured brothers Al and John Christian Staehely on bass and lead guitar joining remaining Spirit members, drummer Ed Cassidy and keyboardist John Locke. The album, however, did not match up to the band’s earlier output, and a healthy California together with drummer, and step father, Ed Cassidy formed the short lived Kaptain Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds for a late 1972 LP, which also failed to match the earlier output of Spirit. It was at this point that California and Cassidy, with a guest appearance by Locke recorded a follow up, Orwellian based concept album ‘The Adventures Of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy In Potatoland’ which was not intended as a Spirit album and was rejected by Epic Records despite the quality of the music and the wonderful ‘Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake’ type humor of California and Cassidy. While the original Spirit would reunite in 1975 and release a series of albums on the Mercury label, beginning with the double LP ‘Spirit of ‘76’ the ‘Potatoland’ album went unreleased until California and Cassidy revisited the project in 1981, due to a fan petition with 5,000 signatures in the UK. The duo released ‘Potatoland’ in an altered version in the US on the Rhino label and in the UK on Beggars Banquet Records. The finished product differed greatly from the original project, featuring an overdubbed selection of tracks from the original album alongside several unrelated songs dating from the late 1970s. Thanks to Esoteric Recordings the confusing “Potatoland’ story is told in its musical entirety on the four disc box set, ‘The Complete Potatoland: The Adventures Of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy reviewed here. The set contains not only the original 1973 recordings and the 1981 album but is rounded out by outtakes and alternate recordings from the studio sessions and two full radio shows from 1973 credited to Kaptain Kopter and featuring California and Cassidy joined by bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight, making for a most interesting package and going a long way in explaining the complicated saga of Spirit.
Disc one consists of the intended 1973 album, supplemented by outtakes, alternate versions, BBC recordings, a couple of live takes from an Austin, TX performance and an interview with California. The album opens with an intro to, and an alternative take of the band’s classic song ‘1984.’ The tune features California on wah wah and killer lead guitar as well as nice vocal harmonies by California and Cassidy. ‘Exit 27’ is a short piece of dialogue that introduces the Orwellian Potatoland concept, with the band cruising in the Koptermobile and exit 27 leading to Potatoland. ‘Turn To The Left’ is a heavy rocker, with California supplying a gorgeous solo supplementing his guitar, bass, harmonica and vocal performances, while Cassidy contributes drums, percussion and vocals, making for a recording reminiscent of Spirit a their best. ‘Everything Talks To Me’ has a Cheech & Chong vibe, belying the drug dominated lifestyle of California at the time, while he supplies trippy Eastern influenced guitar and gentle vocals, while Cassidy keeps perfect time and offers up a fine drum solo. ‘Fish Fry Road’ exudes California’s humor, while the tune itself has heavily echoed guitar and drums reminiscent of ‘Dr. Sardonicus’ with Randy’s lead guitar to the fore. The short piano interlude ‘Nature’s Theme’ gives an obvious nod to the classic ‘Nature’s Way.’ ‘Information’ returns to the trippy Orwellian concept of ‘Potatoland’ with its reference to a phone booth and telephone operator offering assistance to visiting the magical land with California again exhibiting his guitar prowess. ‘My Friend’ mixes heavy guitar with Byrds like vocals rendering a ‘Dr Sardonicus’ vibe. California’s slide guitar and feedback are wonderful reminders of his capabilities. A cover of Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walkin’ The Dog’ is a mellow diversion, again featuring the lead and slide guitar work of California. ‘Giant Potatoes’ offers ‘Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake’ style wry humor, with a nod to Willy Wonka’s ‘Oompa Loompa Song.’ ‘Lonely In Potatoland’ is an incredible guitar interlude filled with driving six string and more slide, the song segueing into a take on Dr. Sardonicus’ ‘Nature’s Way’ which is melodic and nearly identical to the original version. ‘Sardonicus-Matter Of Time Suite’ is a five and a half minute showcase of California’s guitar prowess featuring heavy slide and a discussion of salvation, a topic which would be revisited later in the Potatoland saga ‘1984 Reprise’ is a light keyboard take on the tune that began the band’s tie to Orwell, out of which ‘Potatoland’ grew. ‘Oil Slick-Million Years: Suite’ is commentary on the ecology and a continuation of the Orwellian theme featuring California’s heavy lead guitar and tempo changes initiated by Cassidy’s jazz drumming abilities. ‘Information Reprise’ is a gentle acoustic number filled with more light hearted humor. ‘It’s Time Now’ the five minute album closer opens with California’s acoustic slide guitar intro as the saga of Potatoland comes to a close with more commentary on the ecology. Disc one closes with outtakes, including ‘Donut House’ which would appear on the 1981 album release, an interesting live take of ‘Mr. Skin’ from a 1973 BBC performance, a 1973 BBC interview with California and Cassidy, and live takes of ‘Fish Fry Road’ as well as a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ from a May, 1979 Austin, TX gig.
Disc two is centered around the 1981 release of ‘Potatoland’ on Rhino and Beggars Banquet. One of the major differences between this and the 1973 version are the absence of the dialogue segues between tracks. The album opens with ‘We’ve Got A Lesson To Learn’ one of the left over takes from the original recording sessions. The tune is melodic with horns and nice vocal harmonies. ‘Potatoland Theme’ is a five minute number filled with wah wah guitar and a nicely echoed sound with keyboards added for texture. ‘Open Up Your Heart’ offers more mid-tempo melodic rock and features beautiful piano and swirling guitar giving the tune a majestic feel. ‘Morning Light’ is a relaxed rocker with California’s vocals heavily echoed. Cassidy’s drums and John Locke’s keyboards set the tone on this track which varies greatly from the normal Spirit sound. ‘Potatoland Prelude’ has a keyboard intro which gives the tune a spacey vibe, while California’s wah wah guitar is the perfect complement. The track is an instrumental that is definitely of ‘Sardonicus’ quality. ‘Potatoland Introduction’ is another spacey psychedelic tune with distinctive vocals by California. The song has an exotic, robotic, Orwellian sound and returns to the ‘1984’ topic while making reference to Kaptain Kopter and Commander Cassidy and their Koptermobile in keeping with the Potatoland theme. ‘Turn To The Right’ appears in considerably longer form than the 1973 intended release, with its trippy, Pink Floyd feel. Definitely a return to the early Spirit sound, the tune is filled with California’s signature guitar and vocals. ‘Donut House’ is another 1973 recording not included on the original LP. It has apocalyptic sound effects and synthesizer that brings Steve Miller’s ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ to mind, before California’s guitar and vocals bring back the Spirit aura. A relaxed rocker, the tune is full of gorgeous lead guitar and vocal harmonies. ‘Fish Fry Road’ is another tune from the 1973 album presented in a longer edit. Once again the song opens with an apocalyptic feel, then returns to typical Spirit rock with Randy’s guitar and vocals and Cass’s drums, with horns and keys adding texture. The use of echo is reminiscent of ‘Sardonicus’ as the song rocks to a near crescendo level, while somehow remaining restrained. ‘Information’ is included in a slightly shorter edit, with a phone ringing, the operator answering and the caller asking for the “real story of Potatoland.” The response is trippy, referring to Potatoland in Orwellian terms with ‘Fish Fry and ‘Donut House’ references. ‘My Friend’ appears in a longer edit, its jangling guitars and vocals bringing The Byrds immediately to mind. The tune sums up the Potatoland saga, then California turns up the heat displaying his versatility on slide and wah wah. As with ‘Sardonicus’ all sorts of feedback is implemented and the tune has a false stop. In the end the question is posed, “Is there any hope for the potato people?” The response is to wait for the next album and the “revenge of the french fries with Kaptain Kopter and Commander Cassidy.” The bonus tracks begin with ‘Salvation’ a return to California’s vocals and guitar on an introspective number. The lead guitar and drums are both top notch. The sound rolls with a Hendrix feel and is reminiscent of Spirit in their prime. ‘Potatoland March-Midnight Train’ is an outtake, with its march intro followed by acoustic guitar rendering another tune reminiscent of The Byrds, as the song returns to the Potatoland storyline with its introspective lyrics, false stop and keyboard outro. Disc two is completed by four alternative versions of tunes used on the 1981 release, ending with a Randy California interview from the same year.
‘The Complete Potatoland’ is rounded out by two discs of radio shows done in September of 1973 at KPFK in Los Angeles. Disc three contains a show from September 13th that has been bootlegged in the past, but appears here in the best sound ever, and includes the complete 79 minute performance. California and Cassidy performed the shows as Kaptain Kopter and were joined by bassist/vocalist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight. From the beginning it is obvious that California is at the top of his game and the influence Jimi Hendrix had on him is apparent. No wonder Jimi had wanted Randy to be part of his band early on. After being introduced the band goes into a five minute heavy rocking version of ‘Veruska’ which Spirit had recorded. The tune is drenched in feedback and vintage Spirit ‘Sardonicus’ era. The band performed mainly covers on this occasion, ranging from Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walkin’ The Dog’ and Jr. Walker’s ‘Shotgun’ to Allen Toussaint’s ‘Get Out Of My Life Woman’ and Tommy Tucker’s ‘Hi-Heeled Sneakers’ all given rocked up versions in a way that only musicians of California’s caliber could do. The real highlights however may be the nine and a half minute ‘Free To The Wind’ whose title even reminds one of Jimi Hendrix to whom the tune is an obvious homage with the crowd cheering California on throughout, the six and a half minute ‘I Don’t Want Nobody’ whose title seems to fit California’s personality and sounds like Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys at their very best, and a short, three minute take on Jagger/Richard’s ‘Happy’ which appeared on the Stones’ 1972 fabled double LP “Exile On Main Street.’ California has the opening riff nailed and stays true to the original, the only song in the set on which he didn’t cut loose with an extended solo, which would indicate to me the respect he held for the band and their tunes. The show closer is a twelve minute jam titled ‘Melting Into The Furniture’ which Knight says was written on the spot, he and California having ingested LSD and Cassidy his usual bottle of Mateus Rose. The tempo builds as the sound rolls, drenched in feedback. A real show stopper, the tune is the perfect ending for the gig and the disc.
Disc four contains a complete show done for KPFK on September 6, 1973. The show lasted only forty one minutes, so the disc is rounded out by a demo, three rehearsal tracks and two studio cuts, one from 1973, the other from 1979. As for the eight tracks taken from the radio show, six are the same titles and nearly identical takes from their appearance a week later. However, California reworked the cover of ‘Happy’ into a medley titled ‘Jam/Happy’ which ran over seven minutes and adds more than a dash of Hendrix to the Stones classic, making it a most impressive performance and the only time I know that California recorded the tune in this arrangement. The other standout track is a seven minute original, aptly titled ‘Downer’ which, like virtually all the other recordings belies California’s devotion to Jimi. The song closed the band’s set and did so with a fury. It would be redundant to say that California’s lead work and solos are the highlights of the recordings from both radio shows, so suffice to say that each and every song contains at least one masterful solo by California which are invariably the highlight of each tune, not to slight the musicianship of Knight or Cassidy who each hold their own and make impressive contributions. The three rehearsal recordings included are excellent examples of Kaptain Kopter, Spirit, or whatever you choose to call the band, warming up and testing new sounds and songs. The demo version of ‘Man In Love’ has a Band of Gypsys sound throughout and was definitely worthy of being revisited at a later time. The 1973 studio cut ‘Sunrise’ is a seven minute melodic hard rocker with the familiar Hendrix feel, the tune closing with a wah wah driven solo and fuzz galore. The disc, and box set, closer is a 1979 studio take on ‘Boogie Woogie All Night Long’ a short, three minute, gentler Spirit sounding number, much more restrained than the other material found here, with California’s slide work to the fore and his wah wah outro the perfect ending.
‘The Complete Potatoland’ comes in a clamshell box, each of its four discs housed in their own mini-LP cardboard sleeves, and a twelve page facsimile comic book like the one that accompanied the original 1981 LP release and includes song lyrics as well as gorgeous photos. Also included is a 20 page booklet with liner notes by producer Mick Skidmore, who also mastered and edited the set. The CD masters were prepared by Ben Wiseman making this the best ‘Potatoland’ has ever sounded. This set will appeal to all fans of Randy California, Spirit, or 1970’s rock music and comes most highly recommended.
– Kevin Rathert
Spirit – ‘The Complete Potatoland’ (Esoteric Recordings, 2019)