Classic Rock Review

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Santana Lotus (1974)

cover_1518161632010From starling.rinet.ru

A great record, but geez… maaan… is it overkill. To tell you the truth, as of the time of writing, I have only tolerated one and a half listens, and yeah yeah, I know it’s not fair, but I’m still giving the record a high rating, so I have an excuse. Sorry. My ears are bleeding, and I don’t wanna bleed all over the keyboard.

Getting serious: this is a triple live album recorded in Japan (and maybe somewhere else) in 1973. Since then, it’s been for a long time available exclusively as a Japanese import and long considered a special “fan prize”, until recently it was finally released as a double CD, which currently makes up for about two hours worth of live Santana in their prime.

All of the performances are top notch, All of them. Perhaps the only glaring omission is ‘Soul Sacrifice’, the absence of which I lament very much, plus, I’d eagerly enjoy some of the quieter, relaxative numbers off Caravanserai, but these were probably not deemed fit for an energetic band performance. On the other hand, even the more ‘generic’ Latin numbers off the band’s earlier records (like ‘Oye Como Va’ and suchlike) really come to life, with added packs of energy and extended wailing guitar solos by Carlos.

In general, Lotus seems to feature Carlos more prominently than the rest of the band – the rest of the members are in fine form, but seem to agree to merely serve as background for Carlos. A few keyboard solos and a few vocal sections (not too many) are the only thing to distract us from Carlos’ guitar. Oh yeah, Mike Shrieve gets an obligatory percussion solo on the lengthy ‘Kyoto’, but it’s really tedious compared to his blistering workout on ‘Soul Sacrifice’.

But see, that’s the problem. No, really, Carlos is excellent, he is God and rules supreme. What can be said? The climactic arpeggios of ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ are passing through my head right now, and this is some of the best soloing ever captured on record. Amazing, breathtaking, emotional, spiritual… and it rocks. But see, here’s the big problem. All the songs on here sound the same: even the earlier ones, where Carlos’ guitar was somewhat subdued on the studio originals, are given the finger-flashing arpeggiated treatment (remember my complaint about the timid soloing in ‘Black Magic Woman?’ No more timidity in the version found here!).

And no matter how godly and unbelievable this soloing technique may be, after twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty minutes of it (and there’s still the second CD to go through) it just gets tedious. I mean, what the hell, if you were forced to read “Hamlet” ten times per day, you’d get sick of it pretty quickly, wouldn’t you? Lotus simply overfeeds me with classy Santana – I need a break, and all I get is a headache.

The best advice here is: this is a record that no Santana fan should be without (heck, maybe if you only want one Santana album, you could grab this one), but never make the mistake of listening to it in one sitting. Cut it in four equal parts and place distinct intervals in between them. Put on the first part, enjoy it, then go play some baseball or put on some Wallflowers or whatever crap you like to listen to, like the Beatles and stuff. Then put on the second part. Repeat procedure four times, and then the effect will be complete.

In fact, I start to feel its effectiveness now. When I first sat through the version of ‘Incident At Neshabur’ on the second CD, I felt like falling asleep, but the darned sound just didn’t let me. Now I’m listening to it again, just as a ‘selected track’, and it rules mercilessly. In fact, it entirely and completely obliterates the feeble studio version off Abraxas, with a pounding metallic rhythm section and solos that seem like sonic equivalents of destructive laser beams penetrating beneath concrete walls and blowing them all to hell.

Man, how does he do it? Has he got completely desensitized fingers or what? And plus, it’s all utterly beautiful – a rare case when finger-flashing techniques actually coincide with deep emotional resonance. Ah, Frank Zappa only wishes he could be like that…

A four star rating here, because if it were in my power, I’d easily edit Lotus down to one CD, throwing out the stupid drum solo and a couple of exceedingly redundant “spiritual wankfests”, just so that it would go down more smoothly. Such a carefully edited version would get an easy five stars.

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March 8, 2013 Posted by | Santana Lotus | | Leave a comment

Robert Plant Fate Of Nations (1993)

download (4)From starling.rinet.ru

Something must have surely happened during the minuscule two-year period between Manic Nirvana and this album, because it’d be hard to imagine two albums more stylistically and emotionally different from one another, unless you bring Central Siberian folk motives into the picture. But it’s more than just a matter of “difference”; it’s almost a matter of “rebirth”. Fate Of Nations offers us a new, revised and restructured version of Robert Plant, one you could only see occasional brief glimpses of in the past. It’s a cleaned up, sobered up, straightened up, wisened up version of Robert Plant. If Robert Plant had been Tigger, this version of Robert Plant would have been the Domesticated Tigger of Rabbit’s dreams. Only this time Rabbit’s dreams have actually come alive.

And it’s a great version of Robert Plant. You know, ever since he became hiding behind all the gimmicks and antics of mid-period Zeppelin, as I now realize, in the heat of all the gimmick-bashing I have almost managed to forget how totally cool his singing voice was from the very beginning, and how it never really lost any of its power since the day it first became known to soon-to-be Zep fans. Behind the “baby babies”, and all the strutting, and all the posturing, and all the meaningless, but pompous lyrics, I’ve missed the actual guy. And this is where I get the actual guy – disarmed and almost frighteningly sincere, first time since… well, ever, I guess!

Yep, this is an old man’s album. Another old man’s album out of a miriad. It doesn’t rock too hard and it sure doesn’t experiment. And it radically and utterly and completely steps away from any trends there might have been in the past two decades; indeed, many of the songs seriously attempt to recreate the classic Zeppelin sound of old instead, and some actually succeed, thus paving the way for Plant’s reunion with Page in the next few years. It’s also rather long and I couldn’t call all of its melodies instantly memorable. But it touched something deep within me upon the very first listen, and now, completing my fourth, I feel ready to make the final conclusion: Fate Of Nations can honestly rank up there with some of Led Zeppelin’s best work, and there’s no shame in believing that.

It is quite different, though. Like I said – no strutting (‘Promised Land’ has some, but it’s just a cute little exception that only proves the rule). Those with little tolerance towards non-aggressive, easy-going (by all means not to be confused with “easy listening”!) rootsy pop will hardly understand how anything on here can be discussed on equal terms with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Stairway To Heaven’. No, this is quiet stuff, and certainly nowhere near groundbreaking. But it’s amazingly consistent – not one tune on here that hasn’t got some interesting point to prove – and there’s about as much sincere passion and humanism here as there is swagger and youthful arrogance on Zep’s ’68-’71 albums.

No Led Zeppelin song, let alone a Robert Plant solo song, has ever made me cry (although ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Crawl’ came pretty close at times). All the more amazing is how ‘I Believe’, a tune you might know since it was a single and got some good airplay in its time, manages to hold me in Robert’s own shoes for four minutes, making me care about his long-lost son almost as if it were my own offspring. As much as I like Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’, I’m afraid Robbie wins here, with one of the saddest and at the same time most uplifting odes to a dead person ever written. The lyrics are never obtrusive – it’s not even that easy to tell who the song is addressed to without a very scrupulous analysis – and Plant’s vocal delivery is absolutely breathtaking; I get goosebumps every time the ‘neighbour, neighbour, don’t be so cold’ line rings out loud and clear. Throw in some great vocal harmonies; fresh, lively guitar jangle and a Byrds-ey guitar solo; and a moderate synthesizer backdrop that happens to actually add depth rather than reinstate banality. Gorgeous.

It’s clearly the best song, but it’s only one song, after all – what if he let us down with the rest of this material? He doesn’t. Even the more ‘fillerish’ tracks, like the unexpected cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ (the early precursor to Dreamland), is graciously sung and arranged, with exquisite orchestration, pretty acoustic guitar, and a weird sitar track as a bonus. The already mentioned ‘Promised Land’ doesn’t quite fit in with the mood, but it’s a hoot, almost a benevolent parody on classic Led Zeppelin: its main groove and arrangement tricks including echoey harmonica make me think of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, among other things. But even then Plant is nowhere near obnoxious, delivering the moderately smutty lyrics in a weird, hoarse manner.

As for the carefully thought out material, much of it is absolutely first-rate. ‘Calling To You’ once again tries to capture the ‘Kashmir’ vibe, but this time with memorable riffs and really interesting mood shifts between verse and chorus. ‘Down To The Sea’ is upbeat and toe-tappable but essentially folksy, combining a taste for the archaic with a love for all things catchy and radio-ready. ‘Come Into My Life’ is Plant at his pleading best, conveying desperation and longing by actually singing the lines rather than adlibbing moot stuff. (I seem to remember Maire Brennan of Clannad credited for backing vocals here – or was it on a different song from the same album? in any case, there’s plenty of traditional Celtic elements as well as Enya-style-ified treatings of the same on here, and it’s good).

The record might drag in a few spots (it IS long), but it’s nowhere near as monotonous as this review might make it seem; it’s just that since the melodies rarely “jump out” at you, at first there might be a suspicion of the album being too ‘smooth’. It isn’t, really. Apart from pseudo-adult contemporary, folkish stuff, Eastern stuff, and direct Zep imitations, there’s also some straightforward catchy guitar pop like ’29 Palms’ – a song that I first thought bland and uninteresting, but later found totally addictive because of the great guitar arrangement – and some of Plant’s obligatory pagan mysticism (‘Great Spirit’) which is sorta like heavy-metal-meets-New-Age on practice, and even a heavy rocker about the Gulf War (‘Network News’) which, once again, doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, but contains some excellent riffage and basically achieves its not-so-complex goal, namely, to kick some political ass.

In short, Fate Of Nations done me good. It gave me (so far) four hours of what I’d call “rational enjoyment” – even when the music wasn’t THAT good, it felt great listening to it just because instead of getting all the bad things you’d expected, you weren’t getting none of it; the sight of Robert Plant doing an album so decidedly “un-Robert Plant”, and doing it with confidence, devotion, and sympathy, was enough to put the juice back in the cherry, if you pardon a sleazy metaphor. And when the music was good, it made me think of Robert Plant as a sensitive human being, heck, just a real person, not a long haired stage muppet. And kudos to his backing band as well: they seem to be more or less the same as on Manic Nirvana, and yet they are able to deliver tasteful, gallant music in the “laid back” vein just as genuinely as they were able to deliver brawny rock’n’roll two years ago.

March 8, 2013 Posted by | Robert Plant Fate Of Nations | | Leave a comment

Bill Laswell: Carlos Santana Devine Light (2001)

MI0000332289Bass player / producer Bill Laswell performs the same reconstructive surgery on the music of Carlos Santana that he previously did for electric Miles Davis (Panthalassa, 1998), and with equally stunning results.

This time he combines a pair of complementary but very different albums in his digital blender: Santana’s 1974 solo LP “Illuminations”, and “Love Devotion Surrender”, his 1973 collaboration with fellow guitar legend and Sri Chinmoy disciple John McLaughlin.

The track selection is split pretty evenly between the two original LPs, but the new musical facelift seamlessly melds everything together into an exciting hybrid even stronger than the sum of its parts.

The music itself showcases two virtuosos at the top of their game, and newly transfigured by the spiritual teachings of their shared guru. But don’t let the starry-eyed Eastern mysticism of song titles like “The Life Divine” or “Bliss: The Eternal Now” scare you away.

The performances owe their (considerable) energy more to the engine of early ’70s Jazz-Rock Fusion, in this case with a strong John Coltrane connection: “LDS” was a tribute album of sorts to the celebrated Jazz saxman, and “Illuminations” was recorded with Coltrane’s widow Alice, who contributed the gorgeous harp and string arrangements.

What Laswell adds is a discreet measure of enhancement, clarification and focus, all applied with the utmost respect for his sources. This isn’t your typically slapdash remix album. It holds together more like an extended sixty-minute suite, from the pinpoint acoustic perfection of McLaughlin’s “Naima” to the ecstatic fusion guitar fury of Santana’s “Angel of Sunlight”, and from the unbelievably lush orchestral sweep of “Angel of Air” to the propulsive rhythms of “A Love Supreme”, in which the two guitar heroes trade lightning solos over a bed of Latin percussion.

Imagine a shotgun marriage between Santana (the band) and McLaughlin’s first Mahavishnu Orchestra (members of both groups are prominently featured), with Laswell presiding over the ceremony.

The only reason I’m denying his remix the five stars of an acknowledged masterpiece is because all the material is pre-existing (and I’m not familiar with the original Illuminations album).

But this disc is truly something special, and deserves more exposure than it so far has received here at Prog Archives.

March 8, 2013 Posted by | Bill Laswell Carlos Santana Devine Light | | Leave a comment

Santana The Woodstock Experience (2009)

MI0000891922From blogcritics.org

The first time you see a performer or a group in action goes a long way towards forming your opinion of them and their work, no matter what you see and hear of them anytime after. Well, that’s the case with me anyway. Whether its fair or not, if they suck the first time I see them it’s going to take a whale of a performance in the future for me to change my opinion of their music. That first exposure will have made an indelible impression on my memory banks, and somewhere in the back of my mind I’ll always carry the awareness of that lousy gig and be waiting for them to repeat it. Than again, if they are magnificent the first time, it will take a lot for me to give up on them.

The first time I saw Santana in action was also the first time I saw the movie Woodstock. It looked like Santana was the first group to go on after the infamous rain storm which had turned Yasgur’s farm into a mud bath. In the movie the crowd had started to do their own percussion thing to entertain themselves with people playing on everything from fence posts to beer bottles in order to participate. After a couple minutes of that the movie segued into Carlos and the boys playing “Soul Sacrifice”. While I had heard them play the same song on the soundtrack, actually seeing them perform it was completely different experience.

Although both the movie and its soundtrack only have Santana playing the one song, like everyone else who played “The Woodstock Music & Art Festival” they played between forty-five minutes and an hour. Now, for the first time, the whole set Santana played Saturday, August 16,1969 has been released on one recording as part of Legacy Recordings’ Santana: The Woodstock Experience. The two CD package also contains a copy of the group’s 1969 release, the self-titled Santana, their first recording, and a poster of the group performing at the Woodstock festival.

I have to assume the eight tracks on the Woodstock disc represent the entire set performed by Santana that afternoon after the rainstorm, and the order they appear in on the CD match the original performance order, as it doesn’t say different anywhere on the packaging. There’s two reasons that’s important to me. One, it means they basically performed, with the addition of “Fried Neck Bones And Some Home Fries” and the subtraction of “Shades Of Time” and “Treat”, their album for the concert. Two, “Soul Sacrifice” hadn’t followed directly after the audience’s spontaneous percussion performance as the movie implies, as it was the second last song in their set. What happened on screen was the result of creative editing on the part of the film makers, not some shared experience between audience and performers.

While that was a little disappointing to discover, it did nothing to diminish the electricity of the band’s overall performance on the live recording. For not only was “Soul Sacrafice” as good and exciting as it was the first time I heard it in the movie theatre all those years ago, now that it was placed in its proper context as being part of the band’s overall set, it somehow became even more exciting. Santana is one of those bands whose performances are a cumulative thing, with each song building on the momentum and energy created by the one preceding. Like a rising tide the music builds in its intensity until it finally reaches its high water mark leaving the audience feeling like they’ve experienced something equivalent to a force of nature.

It’s not often you have the opportunity to listen to a band doing studio versions and then live version of pretty much the same songs on the same release. This is especially interesting when dealing with a band like Santana where everybody from Carlos Santana on lead guitar, the conga and percussion players Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas, drummer Mike Shrieve, bass player Dave Brown, to Gregg Rolie on keyboards (which in those days meant piano and organ) are such gifted musicians they can play extended solos on their respective instruments that are miniature performances unto themselves. The embellishments they each add to a song during a live performance aren’t just gilding, they almost take it to a new dimension as they push the material as far as it can go without becoming self indulgent.

Something you have to realize listening to these two discs, especially the live one, is that in 1969 the type of music Santana was playing was something most people hadn’t heard before. While today bands like Los Lobos and others have made the mixture of Spanish music, blues, and rock and roll well known, it was Carlos Santana and his band who first popularized it, and it was this concert that started it all. Before they had played Woodstock Santana hadn’t been known outside of the San Francisco Bay area and this concert brought their sound east for the first time.

Mike Shrieve’s drum solo in “Soul Sacrifice” is now one of those seminal moments in rock and roll history for the impact it had on the audience that day. Michael Lang, co-producer of the Woodstock festival recalls, according to the liner notes, it was that solo that captivated the audience and completed the job of winning them over. While they may have missed some of the subtler nuances of the performance simply because of the size of the audience and the primitive sound system, Shrieve’s drumming wasn’t something that anybody could miss. While normally I find there’s nothing more boring than a rock and roll drum solo, and am ever so grateful that they are now mostly gone the way of the dinasour, the solo he uncorked that concert was like the best of jazz drumming, but tinged with the wild abandon of rock and roll.

While that was a little disappointing to discover, it did nothing to diminish the electricity of the band’s overall performance on the live recording. For not only was “Soul Sacrafice” as good and exciting as it was the first time I heard it in the movie theatre all those years ago, now that it was placed in its proper context as being part of the band’s overall set, it somehow became even more exciting. Santana is one of those bands whose performances are a cumulative thing, with each song building on the momentum and energy created by the one preceding. Like a rising tide the music builds in its intensity until it finally reaches its high water mark leaving the audience feeling like they’ve experienced something equivalent to a force of nature.

It’s not often you have the opportunity to listen to a band doing studio versions and then live version of pretty much the same songs on the same release. This is especially interesting when dealing with a band like Santana where everybody from Carlos Santana on lead guitar, the conga and percussion players Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas, drummer Mike Shrieve, bass player Dave Brown, to Gregg Rolie on keyboards (which in those days meant piano and organ) are such gifted musicians they can play extended solos on their respective instruments that are miniature performances unto themselves. The embellishments they each add to a song during a live performance aren’t just gilding, they almost take it to a new dimension as they push the material as far as it can go without becoming self indulgent.

Something you have to realize listening to these two discs, especially the live one, is that in 1969 the type of music Santana was playing was something most people hadn’t heard before. While today bands like Los Lobos and others have made the mixture of Spanish music, blues, and rock and roll well known, it was Carlos Santana and his band who first popularized it, and it was this concert that started it all. Before they had played Woodstock Santana hadn’t been known outside of the San Francisco Bay area and this concert brought their sound east for the first time.

Mike Shrieve’s drum solo in “Soul Sacrifice” is now one of those seminal moments in rock and roll history for the impact it had on the audience that day. Michael Lang, co-producer of the Woodstock festival recalls, according to the liner notes, it was that solo that captivated the audience and completed the job of winning them over. While they may have missed some of the subtler nuances of the performance simply because of the size of the audience and the primitive sound system, Shrieve’s drumming wasn’t something that anybody could miss. While normally I find there’s nothing more boring than a rock and roll drum solo, and am ever so grateful that they are now mostly gone the way of the dinasour, the solo he uncorked that concert was like the best of jazz drumming, but tinged with the wild abandon of rock and roll.

March 8, 2013 Posted by | Santana The Woodstock Experience | | Leave a comment

Santana III Legacy Edition (+ Live at the Fillmore West July 4th 1971) (2006)

frontFrom blogcritics.org

After their raw and exciting self-titled debut Santana, and the successful follow-up Abraxas, Santana decided to go dark and mysterious with their near perfect third album titled, well, Santana III. The cover art, which I just can’t seem to get enough of, does as good a job as any of describing the music within as it reaches higher into rock cosmos than any of their previous efforts.

It’s hard for me to imagine what fans must have thought when this hit the scene back in 1971. Right out of the gate the band hits a confident stride that doesn’t let-up as they deliver a writhing, swirling, near rock nirvana of an album. Of course, just about every album released by major acts in ’71 was near rock nirvana as well. Zeppelin IV, Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next…it was quite a year. And yet Santana were right there with the best of them, bringing their very particular type of heavy but danceable Latin rock.

“Batuka” starts out with subtle stereo percussion that quickly turns deadly with a heavy funk swagger that just screams from the speakers. Special mention needs to be made here of the sound, which is absolutely impeccable. The depth of the recording is truly splendid and the percussion, drums, organ, and Carlos’ sinuous guitar all meld together and make something truly remarkable.

“No One To Depend On” slinks by with a late night burn, the funky mid-section featuring the band deep in the cut. “Taboo” finds the band in psychedelic lounge mode with some excellent organ work and vocals from Greg Rolie. The track is dark and sweet, the sound dense and heavy.

“Toussaint L’Overture” ushers in the end of side one (you know…on a record) and the band goes out in Latin rock glory. Seriously, I have heard a lot of Santana jams over the years but nothing prepared me for this. Those drums rumble in like a coming storm and the band hits hard and heavy, the gleaming sound of the production bringing the instruments ever closer to complete meltdown.

Greg Rolie burns down the house with his Hammond B3 as Carlos builds layer after layer of his melodic, burning leads. Newcomer Neal Schon lends a hand to the jam on second guitar, and the three players trade solos towards the end in a stunning display of bravado. When Carlos comes back in with his almost romantic lead after the percussion mid section…let’s just say you should turn off all the lights, sit back, and let it all sink in.

“Guajira” is almost pure Latin jazz in its execution and seems to foreshadow Santana’s further development of jazz-rock as the years went on. The band plays beautifully here and provides a prime example of the dynamic wonder that made Santana such an incredible and vastly different band. Carlos’ solo here is wonderfully played, deep in the cut, and amazingly fluid.

“Jungle Strut” follows, its duel guitars sounding somewhat like the Allman Brothers if they moved down to Tijuana. This is quickly followed by Carlos’ own “Everything’s Coming Our Way,” and a fiery reading of Tito Puente’s “Para Los Rumberos.”

The 2006 Legacy Edition includes several bonus tracks from the recording sessions and only add to the overall enjoyment of the album. “Gumbo” smokes with exotic riffery and hot burning solos from Santana, Rolie, and Schon, while the rest of the band cooks up a boiling rhythm section.

“Folsom Street One” shows the deeper, more hypnotic side that this era of Santana was capable of – for more than seven minutes the band lays back and just lets the jam ride. Carlos sounds especially nice in his warped, distorted solo, aided by rolling percussion and some wonderfully played flute. Shame this didn’t make the original album as it is really something special.

“Banbeye” goes even further into hypnotic territory, achieving a near trance like state in its 10 plus minutes. The band displays a unique dynamic that is truly remarkable. The drums and percussion reach into and out of your subconscious as the growing chants become a solid layer of beauty. The guitar slowly chimes in after seemingly forever and reaches far into the cosmos of musical elevation. For a band that was about to tear apart at the seams they seem to be in complete unison with one another. It’s a shame they didn’t record more of this type of music, as it is indeed unique and wholly satisfying.

A second bonus disc is also included containing Santana’s entire performance at the closing of the Fillmore West, on July 4, 1971. The band performs a number of cuts off the new album as well as Santana classics such as “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” “Savor,” and “Incident at Neshabur.” There is also an excellent rendition of Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way” from the Miles Davis album of the same name. Although the sound is a bit erratic at times – vocal drops outs, weird mixing – the scorching content more than makes up for it.

Santana III Legacy Edition is a stunning album that has been made even better with excellent remastered sound and a number of studio out takes and live cuts. The band was on fire during this period and just about to cross over to the next level with a newly formed band and the jazz tinged Caravanserai the following year. But here, in the rock perfection that was 1971, the band is forever captured in its youthful, ragged glory, putting the final touch on a stunning trilogy of perfect albums.

March 8, 2013 Posted by | Santana III | | Leave a comment