Classic Rock Review

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Santana 1st Album (1969)

santanaFrom guypetersreviews.com

It’s kind of sad that most people these days only know Carlos Santana from his latest releases, slick products so obviously obsessed with the lowest common denominator that it almost becomes a joke. It’s not that these successful releases are worthless – far from it – but they can’t hold a candle to the music the band Santana created 35 years ago. Although they were considered part of the Bay Area music scene, the six-piece still stands as a unique unit, one of the most innovative and adventurous of its day. While most other likeminded bands (Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape) sought refuge in psychedelic excess to concoct their merger of influences, Santana was the first band to offer an exciting melting pot of (bluesy) rock, jazz and Latin roots.

The band caused quite fuss when they set the Fillmore on fire in 1968, but the major breakthrough came when the band turned in a now legendary performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival, which took place in the same month this debut was released. The members of the band had white, black and Latino roots, which was all reflected in the music. While Carlos and keyboard player/vocalist Gregg Rollie had obviously been listening to what was happening at the time, they also betrayed a jazz sensibility that – coupled to the percussion work by Jose Chepito Areas and Mike Carabello – resulted into an infectious merger of calculated western structure and Afro-Cuban stress on rhythm.

This is nowhere more applicable than in the album’s centrepiece “Soul Sacrifice,” which basically shows what they were all about at the time. An instrumental with a great, natural flow, it was the first masterstroke in a long series of epics that were showcases for the guitarist’s impossibly stretched notes, Rollie’s sweeping organ lines and the rhythm section’s use of congas and timbales. Whereas the studio version is already ace, it’s simply blown away by the version recorded at Woodstock that’s fortunately included on most editions available. It’s not that it deviates that much from the studio counterpart, but it simply sounds better, more energetic and contains Mike Shrieve’s legendary solo.

The climax of his performance and the moment where the band picks up the main theme again must’ve been one of the festival’s highlights. The majority of the album is less impressive, with the focus less on virtuoso musicianship, but it nevertheless contains some excellent jamming. That’s right, the album’s quite often criticised for being rather weak in the songwriting department – something they would improve upon – but I’m just a sucker for most of these grooves. Opener “Waiting,” for instance, isn’t half as mind-blowing as “Soul Sacrifice,” but the band’s interplay is so goddamn exhilarating. It’s obvious that these people nearly communicated on some paranormal level with each other, not once losing the flow of the song, substituting one restrained solo with another one, never losing sight of the natural rhythm, giving each musician the opportunity to shine. The song’s climax, when Carlos’ stretched notes rejoin the percussion and Shrieve switches to that galloping rhythm, is pure gold.

The album’s greatest hit, the Latin pop of “Evil Ways” is an entirely different matter. It was suggested to them by Bill Graham (the Fillmore dude) who taught them that in order to score, they should come up with something more than just a jam of epic proportions. He was right, as the song – rightfully – became the band’s first hit song. The remaining six songs don’t follow the rigid pop structures, which is why they might sound as rehearsal jams to some people’s ears. In “Shades of Time,” Santana’s guitar tone and jazzy inflections are immediately recognizable, but it’s surely not their best song.

The same goes for “Savor” and second hit “Jingo,” basically two lightweight songs, the first one being a showcase for the Afro-Cuban percussion, the second one more of the same thing with some repetitive vocals added. Apart from Rollie’s passionate vocals and some nifty guitar soloing, I’ve never been a sucker for “You Just Don’t Care,” it must be the whole start/stop-thing. The two tracks left are damn fine though: “Treat” shows the band in a jazzy mood with some impossibly fluent soloing from Carlos, while the straightforward “Persuasion” is entirely dominated by Rollie’s raucous vocals and pumping organ. Santana might have its flaws, but it’s an album that never gets boring, on the strength of the strong overall musicianship. These guys were onto something, and they knew it, and this made them rise above themselves, despite the occasionally slight material.

It’s exactly this genre-bending and liberating atmosphere of discovery and confidence that lies at the core of the album that makes it still so invigorating in 2004.

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March 14, 2013 - Posted by | Santana 1st Album |

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