Santana (Columbia ’69, ’98) Rating: A-
After making a name for themselves at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, providing one of the enduring highlights of the legendary Woodstock Festival, and successfully appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Santana’s debut album was an immediate smash hit when it first came out way back in 1969. As Ben Fong-Torres noted in his excellent liner notes to the ’98 reissue, “Santana brought a generation of Latin American kids into the rock and roll community…but the reverse is also true: Santana introduced rockers to Afro-Latin rhythms.” Those propulsive, powerhouse rhythms were provided by Mike Carabello (conga and percussion), Jose Chepito Areas (timbales, conga, and percussion), and Michael Shrieve (drums), while the soulful backbone of the band was Gregg Rollie, whose moody Hammond organ and bluesy vocals have long been overlooked, and of course Carlos Santana, an extraordinary guitarist whose fiery, soulful playing and famously long-held notes literally cry out with emotion. Here was a totally new and exciting sound that gathered together a melting pot of influences (Latin, blues, jazz, pop, r&b, for starters) without bothering with the superfluous excesses of other San Francisco bands, thereby cutting the exotic music down to its spiritual essence. Aside from the catchy pop hit “Evil Ways,” most of this album sounds like different parts of one long jam, which stresses both the band’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to show off their great chemistry and considerable chops while also revealing that they were novice songwriters. After all, several of these songs are instrumentals ("Waiting" and "Soul Sacrifice" being the best ones) or vocally consist of simple chants (the still very good “Jingo”), and the fact that most of the tunes are so jam-based (though at least they’re concise jams), not to mention the hippy “you can make it if you try” sentiments of “Shades Of Time” (which nevertheless is an intense highlight), makes Santana sound a tad dated at times. I also can't help but feel that these songs were better suited for the stage than the studio, but this was still a highly satisfactory first attempt from a very good band who would only continue to get better. Note: For convincing proof about my "these songs were better suited for the stage than the studio" comment, get the reissue, which tacks on three bonus tracks from their famous Woodstock performance. Included is their star making romp through almost 12-minutes of "Soul Sacrifice," which obliterates the original, and two previously unreleased songs; the so-so “Savor” and the wonderfully mysterious, damn near classic “Fried Neckbones.”
Abraxas (Columbia ’70, ‘98) Rating: A
This second classic installment is Santana’s best-remembered album. It not only contains more discernible individual songs than the debut but its highs also soar higher, including their definitive takes on Fleetwood Mac's “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” and Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” two supremely catchy and soulful songs that remain radio favorites, and deservedly so. The band’s blues-rock-salsa-soul-fusion is surprisingly heavy (to those who discovered Santana via Supernatural, anyway), but the band also excels on the mellower moments of “Incident at Neshabur,” which hints towards their future fusion oriented direction, as well as on “Samba Pa Ti,” where Carlos’ soulful guitar playing exquisitely complements a slow, seductive rhythm. To repeat a tired but true cliché, much like early Alice Cooper, early on Santana was a band in the best sense of the term, and though Carlos was its most talented member, the band’s bevy of polyrhythmic percussionists and keyboardist/vocalist Greg Rollie (later of Journey) were also major contributors to a highly original sound. Granted, the band's Achilles heel (generic songwriting) is apparent at times, but the focus is always on the band’s playing, anyway, as these songs (several of which are instrumentals) mostly serve as vehicles for the band’s exotic and (yes) sexy ensemble playing (for a taste, just check out the album cover; rarely has an album's art work better matched its music), highlighted of course by Carlos’ tasty and ever-melodic guitar solos. Other notables include the mysterious “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” which cooks up an impressive atmosphere reminiscent of Miles Davis, and the hard driving, chant ridden “Se a Cabo,” yet another song that only Santana could’ve done. Note: The reissue features three previously unreleased live tracks recorded at the Royal Albert Hall on April 18, 1970: “Se A Cabo,” “Toussaint L'Overture,” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen.”
Santana III (Columbia ’71, ’98) Rating: A
For my money this is the best Santana album, perhaps spurred on by experience and the addition of two new recruits, teenage guitarist Neal Schon (later to find fame and fortune with Journey) and Latin percussionist Coke Escovedo, who added further fuel to an already formidable fire. This one couples the raw energy and hard-hitting action of the debut with the memorable songs of Abraxas at its best, while being more energetic, intense, and consistent than either. Though variety isn't this band's stock in trade, this is also the band's most varied album to date, encompassing the energetic “Everybody’s Everything,” which was helped along by the Tower Of Power's horn section, the sexy Spanish chants of “Guajira” (with non-band member Rico Reyes on lead vocals), and even a catchy pop gem with a flawless Greg Rollie falsetto, “Everything’s Coming Our Way.” That was the big hit along with the excellent “No One To Depend On” (that's the one that goes "I 'aint got nobody!"), as the band rode a wave of phenomenal commercial and critical success. But my favorite (back to back) songs are two tracks I’ve never once heard on the radio: the sensuous “Taboo” and the so-propulsive-you-can't-possibly-stand-still “Toussaint L’Overture,” both of which feature thrilling jam endings that build to unstoppable crescendos. “Batuka,” a hot album opener, “Jungle Strut,” on which the band's percussionists are again off to the races while the others frantically try to keep up, and (to a lesser extent) “Para Los Rumberos,” which again adds horns and chants into a chaotic but effective stew, also amply show off the band’s brilliant chemistry. It’s a pity that these guys couldn’t keep this lineup together longer; despite carrying on the Santana brand name with varying degrees of success, Carlos Santana has never topped this truly supernatural offering. Note: III features another superlative album cover as well as more good bonus cuts (recorded live at the Fillmore West July 4, 1971) on the reissue: “Batuka,” “Jungle Strut,” and the previously unreleased “Gumbo.”
Caravanserai (Columbia '72) Rating: A
After reshuffling their lineup somewhat, Santana entered a new phase. Fully embracing the "fusion" movement first spearheaded by Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this album has a cleaner, free flowing sound and pursues a more spiritual, jazz-based direction. Of course, the Latin percussion and Rollie's moody keyboards are still important, but Carlos and Schon’s guitars dominate the action more than ever before. This is a good thing, for they’re in spectacular form throughout, though the extensive soloing and unwavering intensity of the album can be a bit draining after awhile. Caravanserai is comprised primarily of instrumentals, and songs seamlessly segue into one another, making it a true album that’s best listened to in its entirety. This was a bold, uncommercial step for Santana to take in 1972, and though perhaps the album's lack of potential hit singles hurt the band commercially, Caravanserai has proved to be an unjustly overlooked classic that Santana connoisseurs generally consider to be among his best. Surprisingly, though the album is more reliant on individual soloing than in the past, where the band relied more on explosive ensemble playing, Caravanserai is nevertheless one of Santana's most rocking albums. That said, it gets off to a low-key start with "Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation," a jazzy mood setter that leads into "Waves Within," one of several songs that features fantastic fretwork from Carlos. Again, a seamless transition is made into "Look Up (To See What's Coming Down)," a funky number notable for its wah wah guitar and a standout drum solo from the underrated Michael Shrieve. The short "Just In Time To See The Sun," the first track to feature vocals, then delivers a simmering groove along with more great guitar, but it’s the next two long songs ("Song Of The Wind" and "All the Love Of The Universe"), both of which are very melodic and include incredible soloing, that form the heart of the album. The next three songs aren’t quite as impressive but are still enjoyable; for one thing, "Future Primitive" provides a necessary, less substantial break from the unwavering intensity elsewhere. Continuing, "Stone Flower" has more of a pop flavor, though they still find time to jam, while Shrieve is again a standout on "La Fuente del Ritmo." Finishing the album with a flourish, "Every Step of the Way" is an at-times jaw droppingly impressive 9+ minute epic that ends another essential Santana album, arguably the band's last studio creation that could be labeled as such.
Welcome (Columbia ’73) Rating: B+
With Schon and Rollie gone (to form Journey) and a new lineup in tow (for details on personnel, see the next review, which I wrote before this one), plus a plethora of session musicians helping out, Welcome saw Santana moving further away from rock into a mellower form of jazz. The band's expansive lineup prominently features two keyboardists/pianists, and other instruments such as flute, sax, and strings give this album some varied sounds, while soul crooner Leon Thomas ("Love, Devotion & Surrender," "When I Look into Your Eyes," "Light of Life") and singers Wendy Haas ("Love, Devotion & Surrender," "When I Look into Your Eyes") and Flora Purim ("Yours Is the Light") give these songs a decidedly different flavor than the five instrumental tracks. On the whole, it's hard for me to single out too many individual highlights here, as this is a consistent album whose main strength is in its enticingly peaceful, laid back vibe. Each instrumentalist (and vocalist) is given room to shine at some point, as this is a much less guitar dominated album than prior releases. That said, of course Carlos has his fair share of stellar moments, as does John McLaughlin, who guests on the albums longest (11:33) and most intense track, "Flame - Sky" (they had recently done an album together called Love Devotion Surrender, which has nothing to do with the comparatively poppy, similarly named track on this album). It's a real pleasure hearing these two guitar greats go at it, and though perhaps the album could use a little more fire and standout songs elsewhere, it holds up well as a start-to-finish enjoyable listen. Earthy, spiritual, and often quite pretty but rarely rocking, Welcome is mostly a mood album and is effective as such.
Lotus (Columbia ’74) Rating: A-
Though this is a treasure trove for big time Santana fans (such as yours truly), it’ll probably seem a bit one-dimensional and monotonous over the long haul for most people (recommendation: do not listen to this two hour concert in one sitting). Recorded live in 1973 between Caravanserai and Welcome, Lotus highlights the “New Santana Band” (superb drummer Michael Shrieve and Jose Chepito Areas being the lone original Santana band members left), of whom keyboardists Tom Coster and Richard Kermode were prominent members along with singer Leon Thomas (and Carlos, of course). Not that you hear much from Thomas here, as almost all of these 22 tracks are instrumentals, enabling the band to stretch out with some fiery performances, the best of which can be found on stunning extended epics such as “Every Step Of The Way,” “Incident At Neshabur,” “Samba Pa Ti,” and "Toussaint L'Overture." The band’s spiritual "jazz rock" side is showcased along with "Latin rock" favorites such as “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va,” and the sound quality is immaculate throughout. This album’s high points are truly orgasmic, and the way the band merges together their two separate periods is impressive (tracks 7 through 12 on side one sounds like a single seamless song). The omission of "Soul Sacrifice" is regrettable, as is the inclusion of an extended drum solo on "Kyoto," hardly Shrieve's finest hour. But anyone who has ever wondered about Carlos’ "guitar God" stature should be duly impressed by his dazzling playing here, while the other members’ considerable contributions demonstrate why the Santana band at their best were always about much more than just Carlos. Seen by many a Santana fan as an essential item in the Santana canon (especially since several new songs appear here for the first time), this 3-record (now 2-cd) set, previously only obtainable as a pricey import, is now widely available. So what are you waiting for?
Amigos (Columbia ’76) Rating: B+
After Borboletta (1974), this seventh Santana studio album saw Santana move away from fusion to pursue a more commercial approach. The album gets off to a strong start with "Dance Sister Dance (Baila Mi Hermana)," an 8-minute Latin rock powerhouse that somewhat recalls the vibe of the earliest Santana albums, only with the male/female vocals which are such a big part of this album. Unsurprisingly, Santana's guitar playing provides the primary highlight here and on the next track, "Take Me with You," which also harks back to the original Santana band (with Schon my favorite incarnation of the band). This one is also propulsive (p.s. Leon "Ndugu" Chancler not Shrieve is now on drums) and fiery but changes gears a little before the 3-minute mark, whereby it becomes peacefully melodic but still appealing. Continuing, "Let Me" is a forgettable funk fusion, and "Gitano" is very Cuban and fine enough for that style (think Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club years later). Elsewhere, I like (but don't love) "Tell Me Are You Tired" and "Let It Shine," both of which I'd classify as jazz/funk/soul hybrids more indebted to Stevie Wonder than Latin music. Buoyed by singable soul vocals, I find these songs fun if not very Santana-like, unlike "Europa (Earth's Cry Heaven's Smile)," an instrumental that's quintessential Santana and maybe his greatest song ever. Simply put, this soulful, emotional, flat-out gorgeous guitar showcase alone makes Amigos a must-listen if you're a Santana fan, and I like the majority of the rest of it as well, even if it's a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge and overall it's still a far cry from his early '70s classics (p.s. the strategy worked as Amigos became Santana's first top ten U.S. album since Caravanserai).
Supernatural (Arista ’99) Rating: C+
Clive Davis must think we’re all fools. What, just couple Carlos Santana with Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews, Eagle Eye Cherry, Everlast, and Eric Clapton (as well as several other less famous guests), and we’ll all just go run out and buy it? Does he think that we, the record buying public, are that gullible? Well, obviously Mr. Davis is some kind of marketing genius, ‘cause we came out in droves (the album went to #1 and stayed there for some time), which is a pretty pathetic commentary considering that most of us have all but ignored Mr. Santana for the past decade or so, yours truly included. Maybe this “comeback” album (not that he ever really went away) is Carlos’ well-deserved payback, but more likely it’s simply another demonstration of the lazy, lemming-like mindset of most consumers, which is a major reason why all radio (and the music industry in general) sucks right now. I mean, all it took was one monster single (the admittedly catchy “Smooth”) and Santana was a superstar all over again 30 years after Woodstock, despite the fact that this ridiculously over-long album is both repetitive and largely direction-less. Oh, Carlos plays with his typical soulful emotion and fire, and there are some solid songs (“(Da Le) Yaleo,” “Put Your Lights On,” “Africa Bamba,” “Maria Maria”) and performances, but too often these repetitively structured songs are seemingly set up as mere vehicles within which the band can groove and Carlos can solo. The endless parade of guest shots makes the album seem scattershot (Carlos himself often seems like a guest on his own album!), and though I’d rather see Carlos (still a great guitarist) on top again instead of, say, Creed or The Backstreet Boys, the truth is that I doubt I’ll ever play this marketing exercise much, as it already sounds far less fresh than any of the classic early Santana band albums. Grammy strikes again: This album won a record tying 8 Grammy Awards in an obvious case of some sort of belated “lifetime achievement” recognition, a la Eric Clapton Unplugged. Note: With a new cast of "guest stars" (Musiq, Michelle Branch, Seal, Macy Gray, P.O.D., and Dido, among many others) in tow, 2002’s Shaman was an even less inspired watering down of the Santana sound than this one was. It was only a comparatively minor success, too, as perhaps Carlos went to the well once too often with this one.