By Mike Greenblatt
Carlos Santana is excited.“Wait until you hear this band again,” he enthuses just prior to the release of this year’s “Santana IV.” Back in 1969, when guitarist Santana led his sextet into the studio to record one of the greatest debuts in rock history, keyboardist Gregg Rolie, drummer Michael Shrieve, bassist David Brown (1950-2000), percussionist Michael Carabello (replacing original percussionist Marcus Malone who was in prison for manslaughter at the time) and percussionist Jose Chepito Areas had no way of knowing that their performance of that album’s closing instrumental, “Soul Sacrifice,” would propel them into the pantheon of great live bands when they clearly distinguished themselves amongst the rock elite at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York, in August of ’69.
Full-fledged rock stars, they followed it up with “Abraxas” and “Santana III” before the ever-searching Carlos would want to take a severe left turn into the jazz of his — not their — fourth album “Caravanserai.” That 1972 gem might’ve turned on a generation to like-minded sounds like Miles Davis, Weather Report (whose self-titled debut came out a year earlier), Return To Forever (whose self-titled debut came out just months prior) and John Coltrane, but it broke up the band.
“Exploring music is wonderful,” Hammond B3 organ master Gregg Rolie says. “Carlos himself will tell you. He’s committed professional suicide a couple of times. He’s just not afraid to do any kind of music. He just goes for it. It’s really quite amazing. He shoots for the moon and gets the stars. It’s a pretty rare thing he does. So, sure, I wanted to be on the radio with more hit songs like we did on our first three albums. The first time I heard what he wanted to do with ‘Caravanserai,’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute! This is a whole ‘nother dimension!’ I wanted no part of it. Neither did Neal (Schon). So that’s pretty much what happened. And that’s also why Carlos came up with the great name of “Santana IV.” Hell, the band just stopped dead at ‘Santana III’ in 1971.”
Neal Schon, who at the time also wanted to just rock out and be on the radio, formed Journey and stands as the only Journey member who participated in all 14 of their studio albums. It was his idea to get back with Carlos, who loved the idea and suggested they get the other three guys, too (although Schon remembers it differently; see sidebar). Rolie was on the road with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band when the call came.
“I think the phenomenal part about the whole thing is the way this all came about with Neal calling Carlos and then calling me. I had been out on the road with Ringo on the Pacific Rim Tour. Carlos had been out on the road on a Santana/Steve Miller Band tour. Neal had been peppering me with phone calls about how great it could be if the 1970 Santana band got back together. I told him, ‘It’s a great idea, but I’ll wait until I hear from Carlos.’ Then all of a sudden I start seeing it on the Internet. I even read a line attributed to Carlos saying, ‘I think we have Gregg.’ So I get home to Austin, waited for Carlos to also get home and rest up for a minute or two before I called him and said, ‘I’m totally into this.’ And the name ‘Santana IV’ is brilliant. It says it all in two words. Carlos and I had talked for years about this! We had thought of different ways to try it but it just never came to fruition.”
Carlos calls the energy “effervescent.”
Starting off with the hypnotizing “Yambu,” the same chemistry that won over the Woodstock Generation is still in play. “Yambu” is like a narcotic. It seduces, it hypnotizes ... its groove is so out-front and inviting that it puts the listener right back in the zone as if the 45 years between “Santana III” and “Santana IV” never existed. But “Shake It” is even more exciting — it totally restores and resurrects that original Santana magic,as Carlos wails in one speaker and Neal wails in the other while Gregg’s liquid spill of Hammond B3 is stuck dead in the middle. Then comes the single, “Anywhere You Want To Go,” which reminds of the funk band War. Rolie wrote it.
“It’s the only song I ever wrote on a plane. I had a gig with my own band in Santa Cruz and by the time we landed, I had it all written ... in my head. I like the War analogy. Yeah, it’s got some of that. It’s so Santana, though, y’know? I’ve written a lot of songs in the last 40 years. I have a tendency to lean back on the stuff I did in Santana like a first-born. It’s my comfort zone. It’s where I go, man. That blues-based sound with a nine in there where you just throw in all kinds of kitchen sink appliances. There’s so much music in it that you can’t put your finger on it. They always say you cannot give a label to Latin Rock. It’s just Santana music. It’s just the way it is.”
Sixteen tracks in a second or two under 80 minutes, the most music one can possibly squeeze on to a single CD, and by the time you’re finished, you just want to play the whole damn thing over again. On “Fillmore East,” you can close your eyes, smell the patchouli oil and picture the throbbing liquidity of the Joshua Light Show. At 7:44, it’s the longest track on the CD, containing a real Monk Misterioso moment or two before morphing into Mahavishnu territory. It takes its sweet time meandering circuitously from Point A to Point B, which is the absolute essence of jam bands.
“We were one of the original jam bands,” says Rolie. “We came from that era. And we backed it up. We were listening to jazz, Latin and blues greats the whole time, basing our own brand of rock ’n’ roll off them! It’s all in there, man. Hey, we just play. And it’s still there when we play off of each other. It just comes out that way.”
Tell that to Carlos and he smiles. “Wonderful. Yeah, that’s what we wanted,” he enthuses. “It’s a good thing somebody stopped us in the studio when we were recording ‘Fillmore East’ or we’d still be playing it. You see, when it comes to that hall, we’ve loved and listened to The Doors and the Grateful Dead and so many other great bands that it’s in our DNA. They say if you can scoop the sound right out of the walls of that place that Bill Graham created when hiring artists like Otis Redding, Jeff Beck, Sly & The Family Stone, the Allman Brothers and, of course, Santana, that’s what we tried to do on that track. We tried to recreate that vibe with genuine honesty and authenticity. That’s really important to me. This is not cute and clever. It’s not nostalgia. This is not old-school. It’s nothing like that. It’s putting your finger on the pulse of your wrist and feeling really deeply the now of it all. We’re connected with the now. Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, we’re connected by the same passion, the same vision and the same mission that they had. That’s who we are. That’s who I am.”
The conversation with Carlos is always filled with the ghosts of his heroes. When Goldmine sat down with the man for the cover story of our September 2015 issue, he had explained about the continuity of cultures between his heroes and friends — Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin (both still alive, thankfully), Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison to name just five of dozens. He’s so filled with the music in his every waking moment that after talking to him, you want to go back and experience every sound every one of those artists made with a new and clear determination to let them soak into your very consciousness. That’s what Santana, the man, brings to the table.
“I just feel really grateful to be in this band again,” he continues. “It’s like getting five different chefs to start chopping and boiling water to put our own flavors into it. I’m so grateful to close my eyes, open them up again and see Gregg Rolie playing that Hammond organ as well as both Michaels (Carabello and Shrieve), plus Neal Schon, vocalist Ronnie Isley on two tracks, bassist Benny Rietveld and percussionist Karl Perazzo helping us out with the congas and timbale parts. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“Playing with these guys is like riding a bicycle,” adds Rolie. “We got together that first time and — I think because everybody was really into doing it — it was no chore whatsoever. It was a total labor of love. And I think it shows. I had a ball.”
“Sueños” is the calm before the “Choo Choo” storm, but for this reporter’s money, “Caminando” rules because of its tip of the hat to The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues,” only with Latin breaks and Spanish lyrics. Its complex arrangement had to have been worked on long and hard in advance because you don’t just jam and have it come out like this!
Rolie remembers that Carlos arranged what was indeed a long jam afterward. “He has such great ideas. He started it from the middle and totally reinvented it. At one point, he looked over to me and asked me what I thought. I just said, ‘You’re on your own, brother. I don’t know where you’re going with this but I love it!’
“I don’t know how long this wave can continue,” he continues, “but the way it all feels, I’m just taking it a day at a time and loving every minute. It’s so great. Hey, we all know Carlos can change his mind on a dime but for now we’re planning all sorts of sh*t. There’s so many things we could do. ‘Santana V’ is certainly on my wish list. I certainly wouldn’t mind being there for Santana VI, VII and VII, man! To be friends with Carlos again is a total joy. There’s no one like him. Period. It’s always all about the music with Carlos. His whole life has been like that. And it shows. It’s who he is. He’s an amazing musician, first and foremost. But he’s ‘The Master Of Melody.’ It’s heartfelt. He likes music that a lot of people don’t like because he hears things that nobody hears. He’s a very unusual guy. He’s like an archivist when it comes to music. He listens to everything.”
“I’m just so thrilled the energy is intact,” adds Carlos. “When I hear the album after not listening to it for awhile — I purposely don’t — it’s like ‘Oh my God,’ I’m an 8-year old seeing Niagara Falls for the first time.”