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Still riding high on the massive, multi Grammy-winning success of his comparatively recent and mainstream “Supernatural” album of 1999, spiritual guitarist CARLOS SANTANA is one of the few old-guard rock stars to have reinvented himself in such spectacularly unexpected style. The guitarist’s distinctly pure, fluid sound was backed by a constantly changing personnel over the years, though his best work was driven by the powerhouse rhythm section of drummer, Michael Shrieve, and percussionists Jose “Chepito” Areas and Michael Carabello, while Gregg Rolie and III’rd LP member Neal Schon played their part before forming soft-prog act, JOURNEY.

As perhaps the foremost progenitor of Latin-rock, and brought up in the red-light district of Tijuana, Mexican-born Carlos’s legacy was rich. Living in San Francisco during the city’s late 60s, acid-fuelled cultural ferment, he put his name to SANTANA the band (originally the Santana Blues Band from October ‘66), bucking the trend of the white, middle class-dominated hippy revolution with a fiery, Afro-Latin-rooted take on psychedelic blues rock in much the same way composer Gato Barbieri was forging a proto-world music, pan-Latin path in jazz.

When the Blues Band part of the name was jettisoned, as well as bassist Gus Rodrigues, drummer Bob Livingstone – who’d replaced Rod Harper – and guitarist Tom Fraser, progress was being made under the more effective moniker of SANTANA; they duly played San Francisco’s Fillmore West in 1968. Later the same year, the gifted Carlos guested on “The Live Adventures Of Al Kooper And Mike Bloomfield”, an LP which brought him to the attention of Columbia Records.

Happy to surface from a month in the studio, the first classic SANTANA line-up of Carlos (lead guitar/vocals), Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals), David Brown (bass), 16-year-old Michael Shrieve (drums), Nicaraguan-born Jose “Chepito” Areas and Michael Carabello (congas/percussion/timbales/ vocals), made the headlines – and consequently the soundtrack – with a dazzling appearance on Saturday, August 16, 1969 at the iconic Woodstock Festival. The “gig” coincided with the release of their long-awaited eponymous debut, SANTANA {*8}, which raced into the Top 5 not long afterwards, helped along by Top 10 single, `Evil Ways’ (penned by Sonny Henry & Joe Zack) and some choice cuts, `Jingo’ (duly credited to Michael Babatunde Olatunji), `Persuasion’ and Woodstock highlight, `Soul Sacrifice’.

The record, together with their next two chart-topping follow-up albums, secured SANTANA’s position as one of US rock’s leading lights. The first of these, ABRAXAS (1970) {*10} – the title stemming from a line in Hermann Hesse’s book, Demian, and featuring Mati Klarwein’s “Annunciation” nude painting on the cover sleeve – was delivered the same month as the tragic death of JIMI HENDRIX unfolded to a shocked world. In the excellent PETER GREEN-penned `Black Magic Woman’ (twinned with Gabor Szabo’s `Gypsy Queen’ for another major hit), Carlos and SANTANA were worthy contenders to fill the gap of Jimi and, more so, an awol CLAPTON. Added to the organic and freeflowing nature of the jazz-inflected prog-jams of instrumentals, `Incident At Neshabur’, `Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’ (penned by Carabello) and the spiritual `Samba Pa Ti’ (a UK hit four years on), complemented a frenetic Top 20 re-vamp of TITO PUENTE’s `Oye Como Va’. SANTANA also made an unlikely but show-stealing appearance in Soul To Soul, a Denis Sanders rocku/documentary on Afro-American musicians touring Ghana.
While the addition of second axeman Neal Schon (aged 17) and a third percussionist Thomas “Coke” Escovedo (Chepito had had a brain aneurysm which he recovered quickly from), added a touch of hardness and spice to SANTANA III (1971) {*8}. Overlooked in some quarters due to the precedence set by their previous LPs, the soulful formula was still intact via hit singles, `Everybody’s Everything’ and `No One To Depend On’, plus the summery `Everything’s Coming Our Way’, and another salsa-tastic PUENTE cut, `Para Los Rumberos’.

Following an ill-advised self-indulgent concert set featuring a former HENDRIX cohort (CARLOS SANTANA & BUDDY MILES! LIVE! (1972) {*4}), SANTANA were back on track with CARAVANSERAI (1972) {*8}, a transitional piece that signalled a tentative move away from blues towards the jazz-fusion that would come to characterise most of the band’s later 70s output. Carabello and Escovedo were now surplus to requirements as Armando Peraza was preferred and, with bassist Tom Rutley in place of Brown, the transatlantic Top 10 album – highlighted by `Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation’ segued into `Waves Within’ – still oozed class and cool.

It was around this time that Devadip Carlos became a devotee of Indian guru/poet, Sri Chinmoy, recording the LOVE DEVOTION SURRENDER (1973) {*7} album with the similarly converted MAHAVISHNU JOHN McLAUGHLIN. A contemplative piece of ethereal jazz, the Top 20 record had a spiritual partner in the following year’s ILLUMINATIONS (1974) {*4}, cut with fellow Chinmoy disciple and jazz-harpist composer Turiya ALICE COLTRANE (widow of jazz giant John). Of these inter-connected jazz diversions one was certainly aware that something cosmic was afoot; the first featured mainly JMc pieces alongside the likes of JOHN COLTRANE’s `A Love Supreme’ and `Naima’; the latter, further extended pieces (`Angel Of Sunlight’ at 15 minutes) that proved commercially fruitless.

Meanwhile, the ever-evolving SANTANA band (Areas, Peraza, Shrieve retained) had witnessed some dramatic changes when Schon and Rolie went JOURNEY-bound, replaced by Tom Coster and Richard Kermode (both keyboards), Doug Rauch (for Rutley), Leon Thomas (vocals) and James Mingo Lewis (congas) for the band’s fifth set, WELCOME (1973) {*7}. Strange as it may seem, UK sales had remained stable while homeland support was scaling down in answer to Carlos’s ultra-fixation with CHICK COREA/WEATHER REPORT-type jazz-fusion. Nevertheless, the inspirational touch of FLORA PURIM’s heavenly vox on `Yours Is The Light’ and Wendy Haas (a keyboardist on “LDS”) on the exotic `Love Devotion Surrender’ outtake track, gave followers of the guru guitarist something to er… whisper about.
1974’s BORBOLETTA {*6} – a transatlantic Top 20 LP which further explored complex contemporary jazz textures – was a little sedate and serene, and a record that almost rewound itself back to a time when MILES DAVIS was bringing birth to cool. Almost patterned on GEORGE BENSON, Thomas took co-focal point on Julio Martini’s `One With The Sun’ and newcomer Leon Patillo’s `Mirage’, while Carlos extended his guitar prowess on Dorival Caymmi’s `Promise Of A Fisherman’.
Following on from a gloriously-packaged but exhaustive triple-album concert boxed set, LOTUS (1974/75) {*7} – released only in Japan and, in turn, Britain – AMIGOS (1976) {*7} saw SANTANA scrape back into the Top 10. Fans of old were indeed elated to see a switch back to a more earthier Latino-rock sound on `Dance Sister Dance (Baila Mi Hermana)’, while some tracks (`Let It Shine’) drew from funk; rhythmists Leon Ndugu Chancler (drums) filled in for last originals to go: Shrieve and Areas; bassist Ivory Stone superseded Rauch.

It was yet another collaborative SANTANA that was let loose on FESTIVAL (1977) {*6}; co-pensmith Jose Areas returning to replace Peraza, Pablo Tellez in for Stone, plus Tom and the two Leon’s being joined by Gaylord Birch (drums and percussion) and Raul Rekow (percussion). Although directed squarely at the charts, and the LP stalling at a lowly No.27, the likes of flop 45s, `Let The Children Play’, `Give Me Love’ and `Revelations’, were hardly going to pit them against CHIC and EARTH, WIND & FIRE.

The lull of sales and critical respect was short-lived though when the half-live/half-studio double-set, MOONFLOWER (1977) {*6} strode into the Top 10. Retrospective in its choice of SANTANA nuggets from all over the shop, the studio pieces included a few upbeat additions, led by a “Conquistador”-esque Top 30 re-tread of The ZOMBIES’ `She’s Not There’, sung by a returning Greg Walker; percussionist Pete Escovedo, drummer Graham Lear and bassist David Margen, joined Carlos’ buddies Areas, Coster, Rekow and Tellez.

Without right-hand man Coster, but shaking up the band to include keyboardists Dennis Lambert (also co-pensmith), Chris Solberg and Chris Rhyne, INNER SECRETS (1978) {*4} bordered on the snooze-worthy with their directionless experimentation. Desperate for another hit to compensate for the band’s lapse into mainstream AOR territory, `Stormy’ and `Well All Right’ were acquired from the respective back catalogue of Classics IV and BUDDY HOLLY, while opener `Dealer’ (segued with Carlos’s own `Spanish Rose’) stemmed from JIM CAPALDI when in TRAFFIC.

In an attempt to distance himself from the pop market, CARLOS SANTANA (as Devadip) – and his main band of course, and a few extras – chose the jazz-fusion route for 1979’s “solo” debut, ONENESS: SILVER DREAMS GOLDEN REALITY {*6}. Despite being almost wholly instrumental, but for a Saunders King-sung trad effort on the title track, the funk-driven `Life Is Just A Passing Parade’ and the STEVIE WONDER-esque `Free As The Morning Sun’, the set had a MAHAVISHNU/Marmite effect on the listener.

While the STEVIE WINWOOD-like singer Alex Ligertwood (ex-BRIAN AUGER, etc.) was preferred over Walker, and Alan Pasqua replaced Rhyne, the well-heeled but exhaustive MARATHON (1979) {*4} fell short of the quality-control line and the Top 20, relying as it did on a smooth formula of cool, R&B numbers such as the STYX-like sole hit, `You Know That I Love You’.

Stretching the limits of Latino-blues, hard-rock and jazz-fusion beyond its sell-by-date, DEVADIP CARLOS SANTANA, his group and an array of former MILES DAVIS cohorts, HERBIE HANCOCK, RON CARTER, TONY WILLIAMS and WAYNE SHORTER – all stars in their own right – strung out a second solo excursion, THE SWING OF DELIGHT (1980) {*4}. Not even a brave version of Alex North’s `Theme From Sparticus’ could save it from poor commercial sales and a berating from the critics.
Adding percussionist Orestes Vilato and keyboardist Richard Baker to the main 8-piece (Rekow, Ligertwood, Margen, Lear, Peraza, Solberg and Pasqua), the SANTANA group finally kick-started the new decade on a high note with ZEBOP! (1981) {*6}, a much-improved Top 10 set that spawned major hit, `Winning’, penned by RUSS BALLARD; other covers included CAT STEVENS’ `Changes’ and J.J. CALE’s `The Sensitive Kind’.

Meaning “monkey” in Spanish, SHANGO (1982) {*3}, was less than impressive, sounding rather world-weary-AVERAGE WHITE BAND (again), as the 8-piece combo plowed through SANTANA-by-numbers, plus outsider cues `Hold On’ (penned by Canadian, Ian Thomas), `Night Hunting Time’ (PAUL BRADY) and `Nowhere To Run’ (RUSS BALLARD).

The solo HAVANA MOON (1983) {*5} – featuring covers of R&B greats `Who Do You Love’ (BO DIDDLEY), `Havana Moon’ (CHUCK BERRY) and `Watch Your Step’ – was notable for the grandoise appearances of BOOKER T. JONES, The FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS, WILLIE NELSON (on the single, `They All Went To Mexico’) and the entire SANTANA entourage.

Now at their lowest ever ebb commercially, SANTANA were a poor shadow of themselves as both BEYOND APPEARANCES (1985) {*3} and FREEDOM (1987) {*4} had found out to their cost. Despite the involvement of seasoned sessioners such as David Sancious, Chester Cortez Thompson, Chester D. Thompson, Alphonso Johnson and Mitchell Froom (Coster, Rolie, Lear, Peraza, Rekow, Sterling Crew and even BUDDY MILES were paraded on the latter), group compositions and a cover of CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `I’m The One Who Loves You’, didn’t cut it among the rock connoisseur.

While Carlos moved in an increasingly jazz based vein from the 70s and suffered an inevitable mid-80s slump, his career took on another side when he scored the RITCHIE VALENS biopic, La Bamba (1987). Unfortunately, none of his music made it to the LOS LOBOS/various artists soundtrack, although the Grammy-award winning solo set, BLUES FOR SALVADOR (1987) {*5}, made up for any misgivings; his only other cinematic involvement was with Indian feature, Everybody Says I’m Fine (2001), which failed to generate a soundtrack at all.

For 1990’s SANTANA comeback set, SPIRITS DANCING IN THE FLESH {*6}, Carlos was joined by Chester Thompson (keyboards), Alex Ligertwood (vocals/guitar), Armando Peraza (bongos/congas/percussion), Walfredo Reyes (drums/percussion/timbales) and Benny Rietveld (bass). Exhuming the ghost of two decades past, and injecting psychedelic-soul into the mix via CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `Gypsy Woman’, The ISLEY BROTHERS’ `Who’s That Lady’ and JIMI HENDRIX’s `Third Stone From The Sun’ (segued with JOHN COLTRANE’s `Peace On Earth’ and his own `Mother Earth’), the album deserved better sales than its lowly No.85 peak position suggested. But then the nocturnal nostalgia of Paola Rustichelli’s `Full Moon’ and a blasting re-vamp of `Jin-Go-Lo-Ba’ were hardly awash with creativity.

Snapped up by Polydor Records when Columbia decided to downsize, SANTANA’s MILAGRO (1992) {*6} was an album dedicated to the passing of MILES DAVIS and Bill Graham (the man responsible since the mid-70s for their promotion). Sadly, like the double-set’s live counterpart – in tribute to Cesar Chavez – SACRED FIRE: SANTANA LIVE IN SOUTH AMERICA (1993) {*4}, it failed to reach Top 100 status; the latter by a long chalk.

Following a deal with Island Records, Carlos continued his prolific output, releasing the SANTANA BROTHERS (1994) {*4}, a unique collaboration with sibling Jorge (once of mid-70s one-hit-wonders MALO) and nephew Carlos Hernandez. Like its predecessor it only scratched the surface of the charts for one week; a bit of a “marsh-MALO” for aficionados only.

When the phrase “re-inventing yourself” was thought up, they must have had Carlos in mind, because what happened by the end of the decade transformed the SANTANA we once knew into Latino blues stars of the new millennium. The record in question, SUPERNATURAL (1999) {*7}, was an album inspired by the gods and only Carlos could hand-pick a team of guest singers/musicians (DAVE MATTHEWS, EVERLAST, LAURYN HILL, WYCLEF JEAN, EAGLE-EYE CHERRY, ERIC CLAPTON, among them) to complement this “tight” meisterwork. However, it would be matchbox20’s Rob Thomas who stole some of the limelight, providing cooler than cool vocal chords on the multi-million selling single, `Smooth’; it would be no surprise when SANTANA cleaned up most of the top awards in the following year’s Grammys.

From the cover art to the minimalist title to the range of tasteful guest stars, SHAMAN (2002) {*5} was basically an attempt to repeat the phenomenal success of its predecessor. While Thomas was still on board, he concentrated on writing this time around, tailoring songs to both MUSIQ and SEAL, although the pick of the collaborations was arguably big hitter `The Game Of Love’, featuring MICHELLE BRANCH.

After helping out HERBIE HANCOCK on the pianist’s collaborative set, “Possibilities”, SANTANA were back in full swing with ALL THAT I AM (2005) {*4}, inviting yet another crop of major label guests – among them Steven Tyler, MARY J. BLIGE, JOSS STONE, SEAN PAUL, the BLACK EYED PEAS’, and a welcome return for BRANCH – on a collection whose writing credits threw up a bewildering array of names. There was plenty of Latinate pop but, for longtime fans, probably not enough Mexicali blues, and certainly no hits on a par with this album’s predecessors; less a case of third time lucky than third time around the block, it just missed being his third consecutive US No.1 album.

Despite taking all of five years for a comeback, SANTANA boarded the gravy train of retro-rawk by revisiting the vaults via the subtly-titled GUITAR HEAVEN: THE GREATEST GUITAR CLASSICS OF ALL TIME (2010) {*3}. A kaleidoscopic karaoke for kids (or wii guitar heroes), LED ZEPPELIN’s `Whole Lotta Love’ (featuring CHRIS CORNELL) and The ROLLING STONES’ `Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ (featuring SCOTT WEILAND) stood proud-and-small next to CREAM’s `Sunshine Of Your Love’ (set alight by that matchbox20 geezer) and GEORGE HARRISON’s `While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (cried out loud by INDIA ARIE and YO-YO MA) [see discog for remainder]. A lazy, almost horizontal album, it nonetheless hit pay-dirt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shirking the thought of what might come next, the 60-something Carlos and SANTANA recouped some of his/their worth by releasing the comparatively innovative SHAPE SHIFTER (2012) {*6}. Featuring his son Salvatore Santana (on keyboards!), vocalists Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, with stalwart Rekow and Karl Perazzo also in tow, the record still had a 70s vibe to it, but played as smoothly and coolly by guitar virtuoso Carlos, dreamscapes such as the native Indian-addled title track, `Metatron’, `Never The Same Again’ and `Macumba In Budapest’, it give off an odour of class.

Signing to RCA, and again under the wing of executive producer Clive Davis, SANTANA’s CORAZON (2014) {*6} featured many musicians from the group’s original line-up. Yet this was rather shaded with the “Supernatural”-like array of top-flight guests on display, namely GLORIA ESTEFAN (on `Besos De Lejos’), ZIGGY MARLEY (on his father’s `Iron Lion Zion’), PITBULL (on `Oye 2014’) and SKANK’s Samuel Rosa on a few others, including `Yo Soy La Luz’, which also spotlighted his wife Cindy Blackman (drums) and WAYNE SHORTER (sax). No surprise then that it topped the Latino Pop charts and reached the Billboard Top 10.

Switching the spiritual SANTANA back to their scorching samba jazz-funk, R&B/blues-rock manifesto, roping in the classic “Santana III” alumni of Gregg Rolie, Neal Schon, Mike Shrieve and Michael Carabello (plus newbie bassist Benny Rietveld and percussionist Karl Perazzo), the charismatic Carlos resumed the power in the organic and fiery band album, SANTANA IV (2016) {*8}. Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic divide, opener `Yamba’ mixed a melting-pot melange of Moog moods (Oye Como Va’s long-lost cousin?), before swinging “Oh Well”-like into `Shake It’. Slowing the pace down a groove or two by way of the breezy `Anywhere You Want To Go’, and cooler still a la the mind-blowing instrumental `Fillmore East’ (ditto finale `Forgiveness’), SANTANA beat to a different drum. Railing back to their heady days of yore, the steamy and suggestive `Choo Choo’ was 70s medicine for the young at heart, a prime example of pouring everything but into the punchbowl.
Ingredients for a day slouching by the sea, `Suenos’, created that dreamy, Samba Pa Ti air; Carlos exquisite and exacting in his intricate axe-grinding. Back-to-back soul searchers with brother RONALD ISLEY, `Love Makes The World Go Round’ and `Freedom In Your Mind’, added another dimension to this comeback of sorts; the celebratory `Come As You Are’ the party piece. 16 cues over 75 minutes was indeed value for money even in today’s CD standards.

Representing the SANTANA moniker, Carlos and drummer wife Cindy espoused the virtues of the “supergroup” by collaborating with The ISLEY BROTHERS on their 2017 set, `Power Of Peace’.

Arriving hot on the heels of a jazzy, Narada Michael Walden-produced EP, `In Search Of Mona Lisa’; their first for Concord Records and featuring bassist Ron Carter, the SANTANA group clicked back into gear with World Music fusion set, AFRICA SPEAKS (2019) {*7}. The inspirational and insightful inclusion to combine forces with one of Spain’s most influential Afro-jazz/Flamenco songstress, (Concha) BUIKA, paid dividends when the album cracked the Top 3 (No.35 in UK). Not only did the record embrace the aforementioned styles, it suited also, the evergreen Latin-American guitar licks always emanating from class act Carlos. `Batonga’ was one such mighty morph of exotic sound (ditto `Oye Este Mi Canto’), whilst the pace simmered somewhat a la `Yo Me Lo Meresco’. It was all held together by the masterful Rick Rubin; his scorching production techniques probably roughing up the smooth edges on `Breaking Down The Door’, `Bembele’ and the single, `Los Invisibles’.

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