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.
My first acquaintance with Santana was quite banal – well, not nearly as banal as hearing ‘Black Magic Woman’ on FM radio, but almost up there; namely, by means of the Woodstock movie. Meaning I pretty much learned of the band and its gutsy goatee-sprouting leader the same way everybody else back in 1969 did, by sitting through their performance of ‘Soul Sacrifice’. On this self-titled record, ‘Soul Sacrifice’ is but six minutes long and looks positively tame next to its live cousin; thankfully, the live version in question has been tackled onto the album for the special 30th anniversary edition (and if the record company got any sense, there it will stay forever).
‘Soul Sacrifice’. What’s there to be said of that masterpiece? Had Santana never yielded anything else worthy of notice, this little gem alone would have still deserved to be the band’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, not that Iron Butterfly could ever be worthy to lick the bootheels of any given Santana member. The funniest thing is, it’s just an instrumental jam. People were doing these things all over the place in 1969 – in New York, San Francisco, LA, all over the place. It’s basically just a jam, alternating between emphasis on individual members and collective playing; but at the same time it’s something deeply spiritual indeed, nowhere near as pretentious as Santana’s later experiments, but just as cathartic. They know how to build up tension – I admire this gradual increase in energy, with the bongos getting gradually louder and louder and Carlos’ guitar “sighing” heavier and heavier, right until they launch into the unforgettable main riff.
So much to enjoy. Some of the most furious (and well-structured) guitar soloing ever captured on tape. Mike Shrieve’s impeccable drum solo, one of the few in this world I can not simply tolerate, but actually enjoy – the man’s playing all these ultra-complex drum rhythms as if he were tapping away at his computer or something. (You oughta see that in the movie as well – Mike’s “reduplication” onscreen, as he’s being shown from two mirror-reversed angles simultaneously, is so in tune with the actual playing! And another interesting observation: his Woodstock solo is exactly three minutes long, as in, precisely, from 3:46 to 6:46 into the song. Coincidence or a superhuman sense of time?). And then, of course, the magnificent “race-to-the-end”: just as Rolie’s organ solo starts lulling you off to sleep, they all come together for one final punch.
Imagine my disappointment, now, when I put the record on and it turned out there was not that much else to it. None of the songs even come close to ‘Soul Sacrifice’ in their intensity – bah, forget ‘come close’, all of them at best sound like pallid copies of ‘Soul Sacrifice’, even though the tune actually closes out the album, and at worst, are plain boring in these modern days when you don’t really surprise anyone any more by the mere fact of crossing rock’n’roll guitar with samba rhythms. Word of the day is “restrained”, which Santana are indeed, most of the time, from first to last member. Obviously, the emphasis was upon showcasing the spirit of brotherhood within the band, but gimme Sly & The Family Stone or Funkadelic if I really want to enjoy me some genuine “brotherhood”. The original Santana band had two virtuosos: Carlos himself and Mike Shrieve. You don’t need to go further than ‘Soul Sacrifice’ to see this. So why the heck are they underplaying all the time, stepping into the shadows and letting the perfectly average Greg Rolie take over?
Not that the band isn’t willing to indulge in some lightweight pop entertainment, either. Classic rock radio addicts might not even be acquainted with ‘Soul Sacrifice’, but they’ll be sure to recognize ‘Evil Ways’, the album’s single that managed to get to #4 on the US charts, and helped prop up Santana’s rise to power from the other side of Woodstock. The way I see it, though, it’s not a very good song. The main melody is just a rather primitive little rootsy-tootsy stomper, the solo is played by the all-pervasive organist; it ain’t until the very last minute that the song shifts gears, speeds up, and begins to catch fire, and then it just fades away? What a buncha crap. Okay, not a bunch of crap. Decent (yawn) song. I give it a B-. Now can I call myself Devadip?
To be fair to ‘Evil Ways’, none of the other vocal numbers are even remotely interesting – they’re trying to fit somewhere in between R’n’B and pop, with only slight tinges of Latin style, and they always come up with something desperately searching for a point and finding none. Rolie is responsible for some of these, but he’s not that much of a composer (‘Persuasion’ – what the hell is that? the funky groove is good, but I’m looking for a composition here); and even when the credits are shared by the ‘Santana Band’, it doesn’t help much. To be fair to the instrumental numbers, there are extremely few vocal numbers here. I don’t even think they actually worried about writing vocal melodies, given they had one they could use for a hit.
The instrumentals do have a certain appeal and ultimately save the album – even if ‘Soul Sacrifice’ more or less covers everything that the other instrumentals have and much more. For instance, ‘Waiting’ opens the album in very much the same way as ‘Soul Sacrifice’ closes it, by gradually strengthening the rhythm section, guiding the song through soft passages alternating with rip-roaring outbursts of guitar power and inserting a brief all-out percussion passage for you to bang your head to the groovy rhythms alone. Too bad the guitar doesn’t practically come in at all until halfway through, while Shrieve is all but buried in the mix by the rest of the percussionists. And ‘Savor’ goes through two minutes of energetic funky drive just to crumble into another massive percussion solo later.
‘Jingo’ is quite wonderful, though, because of how they manage to make this emphasis on the bass drums and bass guitars so that the song becomes a harsh, dark, brutal trip through the jungle, quite reminiscent of the lion head on the album cover; and Carlos gives out appropriately scathing solos. Even so, quite often he plays nearly the very same licks that distinguish… ‘Soul Sacrifice’, yeah you got it, and the power buildup again lies in the same department. In the end, the only notable exception to the formula turns out to be ‘Treat’ – the song begins as a pretty piano shuffle and then finally turns into a true guitar-led jam, with the slower tempo allowing Carlos to stretch out and deviate a bit from the uniform style. On the other hand (see, there’s just no stopping me when I’m in one of those nasty sacrilegious moods!), isn’t it sort of an instrumental companion to ‘Evil Ways’ that way?
In the end, my final rating is a very weak 10, somehow propped up, however, by the bonus tracks. Like I said, I’ll take the Woodstock version of ‘Soul Sacrifice’ over the original any day; and ‘Savor’ likewise gains in intensity when played live before an audience of half a million stoned motherfuckers. The third track is a previously unknown nearly-instrumental tune called ‘Fried Neckbones’ – it’s not exactly written in Midgard, but somehow it sounds moodier and scarier than all of Santana put together. Funny, now that I’m well acquainted with Nuggets, I’d say ‘Fried Neckbones’ was based around the main melody line of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s ‘Incense And Peppermints’! Coincidence? Probably! But considering both bands used to hang out in California, the probability is certainly lower than a hundred to one.