California psych-rock band Spirit should be more highly regarded. A string of classic albums, the powerful lyricism and guitar playing of leader Randy California, as well as an interesting back story about the child prodigy frontman assisted by his stepfather—it’s the stuff of legend. But somewhere along the way, Spirit lost its spirit. Whether it was the bizarre, nonsensical concept albums, California’s inconsistent muse, the didactic political hippie themes, or the work of darker forces, one cannot say. Their penultimate album, Tent Of Miracles, appeared in 1990, and this new reissue gives a much-needed boost to one of California’s final statements.
Yet when the album appeared, it couldn’t have come across as more pathetic. A Sixties band in the Nineties couldn’t have been a harder sell, but California tried. The liner notes describe a somewhat sad—if not delusional—attempt to pitch the new material to Arista Records’ Clive Davies. Unsurprisingly, he passed. Tent Of Miracles would be a self-released affair, and it came packaged in depressingly amateurish artwork. If one didn’t know better, one could have assumed this Spirit was a local hippie bar band. It certainly didn’t seem like the band who released Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus.
Despite its dreadful appearance, did Tent of Miracles have merit? Surprisingly, yes. The addition of bassist Mike Nile helped to revitalize Spirit’s sound for the better. With a greater creative role, Nile’s songwriting offered a new, more contemporary style. Nile’s bluesy “Ship Of Fools” is a breath of fresh air, as is “Deep In This Land,” the hard rock album closer. His title track proved an exercise in trying to conjure the classic early Spirit sound. California is also in pretty good form as well. True, some of the songs possess a cringeworthy naiveté. “Logical Answers,” a song he felt contained an important message. (Not surprisingly, and one of the songs Davies heard that led him to pass.) The gentle and brief “Neglected Emotion” find California at his best, as does the blues rocker “Love From Here.”
The bonus material offered actually help strengthen Tent Of Miracles. Two completed numbers,“ Covered Wagon” and “California Band,” should have made the cut. The former is a funky country & western cowboy song, while the latter is a jam on “California Man,” an older Spirit song. Demos of “Zandu” and the unreleased “Kokomo” are interesting, as is the soft and gentle demo “All I Need Is Time.” The first disc concludes with four live tracks, including a superb unreleased Nile composition, “I Can’t Dance No More.” The second disc consists of a live performance from Amsterdam. The audio quality is a bit rough, and the performance is a bit loose—the older material occasionally feels quite perfunctory—it’s revelatory in that the newer material, such as “Tent Of Miracles” and “Love Tonight” simply scorch. The second has its moments, but it’s definitely meant for more serious fans.
Tent Of Miracles suffered from the threefold punch of terrible packaging, somewhat hackneyed lyrics, and the uncontrollable factor that the times were not welcoming to such a band as Spirit. But it’s hard to deny that there was the possibility for a restart, thanks to the addition of Mike Nile. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t happen. Nile would soon leave the creative side of Spirit, while remaining as an on-call touring bassist. Spirit would release one more album in 1996. Spirit ended in 1997 when California died in a drowning incident after rescuing his son from a riptide. Still, this reissue of Tent Of Miracles shines a light on an understandably neglected and largely unknown album from a band that deserved better.
Purchase Spirit Tent Of Miracles: Esoteric Recordings