In English there is a saying that says “The family that prays together, stays together”, so the boys of Spirit decided to play with the words and changed it to something more apt, “The family that plays together…”. In their case they were not lying as two of the band members were indeed family. The drummer Ed Cassidy, who was 45 years old, was the stepfather of the young guitar prodigy Randy California, who was 17. Cassidy was a veteran jazzman who had played with giants like Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, and Thelonious Monk and had had his first rock & roll experience with the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Young Randy didn’t have a bad resumé either despite his youth. The ‘name’ California was given to him by Jimi Hendrix himself, who recruited him for his Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, the band he had before being discovered by Chas Chandler. California comes from his birthplace and Hendrix called him that to tell the difference with another Randy in the band, whom he called Texas, and you know why.
The rest of the band comprised Jay Ferguson, the other lead singer, bassman Mark Andes, and keyboardist John Locke who shared jazz affinities with Cassidy. The Family That Plays Together was their 2nd record in 1968, behind their promising namesake debut (which included the instrumental Taurus, known as the main inspiration Jimmy Page had for Stairway to Heaven) and showed how much this unfairly forgotten band had to offer.
The record opens with the irresistible I Got a Line On You, their most remembered song. It is no wonder that this song by Randy California should be on the list on indispensable songs of the 60s. It starts off with a riff on both piano and guitar, and then the vocals come in like a hurricane, California plucks away on his Danelectro U56, bought at a Sears department store, plugged into a Silvertone amp, a bargain of equipment that he turned into the best sound possible. It’s easy to see what Hendrix saw in this kid for whom he always had praise. On It Shall Be, there are several things to appreciate, his taste for cool jazz and heavenly harmonies on the intro that is pure psychedelia from the West Coast, with flutes and many voices. Poor Richard, written by Ferguson, gives California a chance to shine, doubling on guitar in a delightful solo. Drunkard is much closer to the spirit of the times, under the influence of Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, a ballad with harmonies and chords that ends up as a psychedelic instrumental that serves as a prelude to progressive rock. Darlin’ If is another great number by California, a simple lovely mid-tempo where he shows his talent for lyrics, the best bit comes on an amazing bridge instrumental with a guitar solo by California, and Andes’ bass interplaying between them, yet another clear evidence of his talents.
Side B opens with It’s All the Same, a number that gets ahead of 70s rock. California shows yet again his skills on 6-string, and Cassidy bangs out a drum solo where you can hear his love of jazz, quoting a Joe Morello solo on Castilian Dreams by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Jewish is the strangest song on the album, with California reciting Hebrew phrases until the song turns into a kind of psychedelic jam that shows just how good they were. Dream Within a Dream is a magic carpet ride confirming California as a fuzz wizard and Ferguson as an excellent songwriter. Aren’t You Glad is the perfect ending with an incredible ‘psych rock’ number, with California showing off his fuzz chops once again, delivering the most awesome solo on the record (it’s amazing to think he was just 17 years old).
The band still had a few things left to offer, like the great Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, but The Family That Plays Together is an ideal introduction to the legacy of a band to reappraisal.