Classic Rock Review

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Santana Moonflower (1977)

51j8-c9WSaLFrom Sounds

This is the album that should have been called ‘A Period of Transition’. Not that it has anything to do with Van Morrison, but it does have a lot to do with an artist coming to the end of one phase in his career and wondering where the hell to go next. Thinking about it, perhaps ‘Holding Action’ would be a better title, because that is what Moonflower is.

It’s a double. Just under three sides worth of live recordings and just over one side’s worth of new studio cuts (the album’s running order mixes live and studio cuts in a way which, remarkably, highlights the respective strengths of each setting rather than destroying continuity as one might expect). In some respects one has to doubt the wisdom of issuing a package like this at all. After eight years Santana can’t be in the market for many new converts. Dedicated (and rich) fans may already have the live versions of Santana standards contained here on the Lotus, live in Japan, triple-album set. And while the new material will doubtless satisfy the faithful (though they may resent forking out the price of a double-album for it) it is unlikely to ignite the interest of those who have passed Santana by in the past.

The album proves two things. Firstly that while Carlos Santana may be getting old in the tooth by today’s standards, he has lost none of his bite as a stage performer; indeed the performances here go a long way to illustrating that Santana is still one of the most energising and inspiring acts to be heard live – a fact not fully borne out by his recent Crystal Palace performance. And secondly that as far as studio work is concerned the current Santana band are treading water.

Up until now Santana’s career can be divided into three stages: the jugular, ‘barrio’ rock of his first three albums – a unique blend of blood, guts and mind-expanding substances; the more reflective, mystic jazz experimentations of Welcome and Revelations; and, more recently, the tentative return to the hot-blooded latin dance idioms of the early years, tempered with straightahead funk or more sophisticated soul, jazz and/or flamenco styles (as on Amigos and Festival).

The new studio material on Moonflower seems to signal the end of phase three, without really giving any coherent indication of what stage four may be. Of the five new instrumentals, three – ‘Bahia’, ‘Zulu’ and ‘El Morocco’ seem almost perfunctory in application: the sort of subtle yet fiery workouts that Santana could probably perform in his sleep, with guitar and Tom Coster’s keyboards alternating leads while the rest of the band crackle along with customary precision behind them. The remaining two are more interesting. ‘Go Within’ is a surprising tune to find here; a casual, jazzy strut led by Coster’s piano (and, I would guess though my pre-release copy doesn’t specify, written by Coster) in a manner reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Wade In The Water’. ‘Moonflower’, on the other hand has a more familiar ring to it, beign one of those effortless, drifting guitar-led melodies – like ‘Europa’ or ‘Samba Pa Ti’ – that Santana does so well. The beauty of this sort of tune is that in anybody else’s hands it would sound no more than nice – that most damning of adjectives – and possibly banal, but Santana’s playing imbues it with a grace and beauty to seduce the most jaded romantic.

Of the three new vocal cuts, both ‘Transendance’ and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ fall neatly into territory previously explored on the last album, Festival – tranquil soul ballads, rich and soothing, beautifully sung by Greg Walker, one of the better vocalists in the Santana band’s history. That leaves ‘She’s Not There’, the old Zombies’ hit which lends itself surprisingly well to a sharp, samba-fled treatment, an urgent, buzzing guitar sound underpinning the rather edgy mood of the song.

The live cuts should be familiar to everyone. ‘Carnaval’ and the exultant ‘Let The Children Play’, both from Festival; and old favourites like ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Soul Sacrifice’, ‘Gypsy Queen’, ‘Savor’ and ‘Toussaint’. It says something for the enduring quality of Santana’s music (and not a little for this particular band) that after a few years and countless hearings these numbers sound as vital and exhilerating as they ever did. It also says something for the listener’s patience if they can sit through all four sides of the album at once. Santana is a guitarist who can burn his fretboard with a grace, passion and fire which gives him few, if any, peers. His ‘singing’, highly lyrical approach to playing makes him one of only four or five guitarists in rock who’s style could truly be said to be unique. Yet over four sides the distinctive threatens to become the repetitive.

It’s a risk any artist takes with a double album – that under close scrutiny their limitations become as apparent as their strengths. And Santana, it must be said, has his limitations. But who’s scrutinising? He is still one of the most exciting guitarists in the world. And Moonflower will keep you dancing until he decides which direction to strike out in next…

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March 31, 2013 - Posted by | Santana Moonflower |

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