Collectors have long known about Milwaukee's Major Arcana, but I'm surprised it hasn't attracted more mainstream attention. Jim Spencer originally made his name as a writer/publisher, responsible for a series of early-1970s underground magazines, including Freek. He also found time to record a pair of mid-1970s solo LPs that attracted local attention, but did little on the national scene.
In 1974 he decided to form a band, recruiting the talents of bassist Michael Burdecki, lead guitarist Randall Dubis, and percussionist Jim Kitchen. Released on Spencer's own A Major Label (which also released the highly sought after Anonymous album), "Major Arcana" served as a showcase for Spencer who handled all of the vocals and was credited with writing, or co-writing nine of the ten songs (the one exception being a cover of the traditional 'Greensleeves'). Propelled by Spencer's likeable voice (for some reason every time I listen to the LP I think of Jack Black in 'High Fidelity'), musically the album was hard to describe since it bounced all over the horizon including stabs at conventional blues, commercial ballads, folk-rock, Dr. John-styled funk ('Papa Doc') and even jazzy interludes.
Curiously lots of reviews have slapped a 'psych' label on the LP. Frankly that's the one genre I just don't hear much of - maybe a little in side two's 'Down Under Blues' and the closing 'Greensleeves'. Maybe I'm simply going deaf ... In spite of some cheesy synthesizers, co-written with Milwaukee poet Charles Dynzof (aka Chuck Simmons), 'Western Wind' started the album off with a stunning ballad, with 'Shake Me' and 'Steal Your Love Back Home' turning in equally engaging mid-tempo pop pieces. It wasn't perfect. 'Deanna Durbin Blues' and 'Fran's Blues' were okay, if unexceptional blues numbers.
Interestingly guitarist Dubis went on to pursue the genre in his post-Major Arcana career (see below). Elsewhere, courtesy of buddy Sigmund Snopek III, the flute interludes quickly became an irritant. Still, the album's loose, low tech feel more than compensated for the somewhat fragmented musical lineup, making it a perfect LP to play on one of those cold, rainy or snowy Sunday mornings when you can't get much energy going.
Depending on which source you use, between 1,000 and 2,500 copies were pressed. Regardless, the LP's hard to find. Original copies are also worth owning for the cool Denis Kitchen cover art (the only album cover he's ever done), as well as the hard to find Peter Poplaski poster insert.
On a related note, in 1999 Kitchen had artist Roger May convert the original print into 3D. I believe he had 100 copies printed (I own #76) and he sells signed artist print copies for $50 over the internet. Suffering from a number of personal issues and apparently heavily into drugs, Spencer died of a stroke. He was only 39 years old.
In the late-1970s Dubis moved to Denver, Colorado where he ended up touring with a number of local acts including the late Son Seals and Sonny Rhodes. He also formed The Randall Dubis Band which has released a series of albums.
1. Western Wind (Charles Dynzof, Jim Spencer) - 5:03
2. Dark Trip To Edge City (Jim Spencer, Barry Patton) - 4:13
3. Shake Me (Jim Spencer) - 3:32
4. Steal Your Love Back Home (Jim Spencer) - 4:27
5. Deanna Durbin Blues (Jim Spencer) - 4:39
6. Down Under Blues (Jim Spencer) - 4:53
7. Papa Doc (Jim Spencer) - 5:31
8. Back In The Spirit (Jim Spencer) - 4:38
9. Fran's Blues (Charles Dynzof, Jim Spencer) - 5:16
10. Greensleeves (Traditional Arranged By John Nebi, Jim Spencer, Sigmund Snopek Iii) - 3:25
* Michael Burdecki - Bass, Slide Guitar
* Randall Dubis - Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
* Jim Kitchen - Percussion, Harmonica
* Jim Spencer - Vocals, Guitar