SANTANA - Santana III (Columbia Records KC 30595, 1971)
Best known the world over for the group that bears his name, Carlos Santana has been reinventing and reshaping the landscape of the known universe's musical culture for close to four decades. A visionary artist with no regards for genre boundaries, Carlos' fluid sound long ago laid claim to the concept of world music before the term ever surfaced on pop culture radar. Having evolved and expanded for over four decades, the Carlos sound could well be on its way to becoming interplanetary music. Born in Autlan de Navarro where there's now a street and public square in his name--to the son of a virtuoso Mariachi violinist, Carlos followed in his father's musical footsteps, taking up the violin at the age of five. It was when his family moved to Tijuana several years later, however, that Santana began his lifelong relationship with the instrument that would make him a musical icon, the guitar. In 1961, Carlos made the border crossing moving from his native Mexico to San Francisco. A few years later, he formed the Santana Blues Band there, and the cool, soulful riffs and rhythms of his Latin-blues based sound found an audience eager for his innovative musical ideas. Carlos and company emerged as giants of the era-defining Bay Area music scene of the late '60s, and their fame grew far beyond its parameters while their artistry remained true to its free-flying spirit.
Massive success quickly followed. By the end of the decade, Carlos had played to packed houses on a cross-country tour, performed on the venerable Ed Sullivan Show, and made an indelible global mark with Santana's legendary, crowd-detonating performance at the original Woodstock festival in 1969. He has not slowed down since: On a roll from his Woodstock performance his debut album shot up the chart bringing in a high-power fusion of rock and Latin beats. The next two albums duplicate the formula every time increasing his profile and winning over fans. With Caravanserai, the group changed directions developing a stunning jazz-rock and the album remains one of the textbook case of fusion music. This prompted Carlos Santana to start a solo career with collaborations with Buddy Miles, John Mc Laughlin (the superb "Love, Devotion, Surrender") and Alice Coltrane (the no-less superb "Illuminations"), while his group was still releasing strong albums like "Welcome" or "Borboletta". By the Mid-70's Santana was cruising effortlessly with a string of albums that were easily identified by the public: "Moonflower", "Amigos" each provided huge hits while developing sophisticated fusion music. By the end of the decade however, and the numerous personnel changes, the group started losing a bit of focus.
Commercial success came back with singer Alex Ligertwood (ex-Brian Auger's Oblivion Express) being hired for the "Marathon" album. The 80's provided Santana many successful moments, but by the end of the decades his fortunes were again decreasing. Through certain collaborations, he remained in the spotlight and became a hero when appearing on John Lee Hooker's "The Healer" album. Carlos and his group cruised the 90's without much worries and his latest albums have been selling millions worldwide. But by this time, his music is much less interesting to progheads. Less publicized, but equally as profound as his artistic legacy, is Santana's long history of social activism and contributions time and funds to humanitarian causes. As a culmination of his decades of support for countless charities and non-profit agencies the world over, he and his wife of 30+ years, Deborah Santana, founded their Milagro Foundation in 1998. With over $1.8million in grants to date, Milagro supports organizations promoting the welfare of underserved children in the areas of health, education, and the arts. More recently Santana has become deeply involved in the fight against the AIDS pandemic in South Africa through a partnership with ANSA - Artists for New South Africa. Other organizations he has championed include Hispanic Education and Media Group, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Childreach, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, American Indian College Fund, Amnesty International, and the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance.
On Santana's third studio album in as many years since they wowed the Woodstock nation, I get the impression that they were a fairly happy, uncommonly stable and reasonably satisfied band comfortable in their own skin. They were so universally accepted by the masses and so genuinely well-liked by millions that I honestly can't blame them for taking an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude when it came time to laying down the tracks for this release. In most cases a safe, unadventurous and conservative approach results in an album that's far too predictable and sorely lacking in passion but I can't argue with what my ears confirm to my heart when listening to "Santana III". They still had fire in their bellies. They were surfing atop the crest of immense popularity in '71 and, whereas other successful groups running around in their loafers were exhausted, imho burned out by the demands of near-constant touring, these hardy gauchos were still basking in their primeness, generating enough energy night after night to electrify a metropolis and playing with verve as if their lives depended on it.
What made Santana so special ? They possessed the rare commodity of owning a sound so unique yet so accessible that they created a singular niche they didn't have to share with any other band. They were a one-of-a-kind musical hybrid that had a whole genre of music all to themselves. That's why their first trio of albums comprise such a consistent set. They stuck to their pistoleros, not due to their record label coercing them to churn out more of the same profitable shtick (although I have little doubt the suits at Columbia were thrilled about everything they produced turning to platinum), but because Santana knew who they were and what they were all about. They had a sort of 'I know what I like and I like what I know' kinda thing going on that managed to please both the Top 40- addicted general populace and the more critical progressive rock mob that refused to settle for plain vanilla flowing through their headphones. Not an easy mountain to climb for even one album, much less three in a row. Yet as much as I admire this collection of songs I'm extremely glad (as the whole prog world should be) that they took off in a revolutionary and fearlessly exploratory direction on the next one. But let's concentrate the focus on "Santana III".
A rhythmic blend of percussion and drums sets the spicy tone for the instrumental opener, "Batuka", and Carlos' aggressive guitar riff announces without apology that they haven't lost their edge. His solo is ferocious and Gregg Rolie's screaming Hammond organ snarls like an agitated pit bull and then they abruptly shut it down as if the police had arrived in response to a disturbing the peace complaint from the neighbors. No harm done, though, as the classic "No One To Depend On" follows right on its heels. It has one of their great slight-of-hand intros that keeps you guessing where they're going to go right up until the moment Michael Carabello's congas and Jose Chepito Areas' timbales grab you by the collarbone and pull you into the tune's irresistible groove. Carabello and newcomer Coke Escovedo co-wrote this catchy number featuring ensemble vocals that make it impossible to resist singing right along. It includes clever rests and accents to delight in as you make your way through the verses and the inspired middle section erects an unexpectedly proggy platform for the band's then 17-year-old newbie Neal Schon to introduce himself to their fans via a fierce, ripping guitar ride that still threatens to crackle your speakers to this day. Once that major revelation concludes their exemplary posse of percussionists guides the song back to its original feel with nary a glitch, paving the way for one of my favorite one-second-in-duration guitar licks (the one right after the last 'I ain't got nobody') and an unforgettable, band-in-a-canyon ending. I still crank the volume when this one comes on the radio even after all these years of hearing it.
Rolie and Areas teamed up to pen "Taboo" but, despite a grandiose onset, it promises more than it can deliver because the tune is too anemic and weak to stand on its own. It marks the low point of the album. Its saving grace, however, is what the group does with the arrangement when the vocal ceases to bore and the instruments take over, especially Mr. Santana's sublime guitar. "Toussaint L'Overture" comes galloping in like the cavalry to rescue the proceedings. Though it's hardly more than an organized jam based on a frequently-borrowed descending chord progression, in this group's hands such fare sizzles like fatty bacon on a spit. Gregg knocks out another hot Hammond solo and Carlos' guitar lead doesn't disappoint but it's the fiery percussion roiling underneath the Latino chanting that really gets my heart a pumpin'. The second half of this cut has Schon, Santana and Rolie duking it out like they're caught up in a last-hombre-standing street fight all the way to the stop-on-a-dime ending.
I've always been fond of songs that help encourage and motivate me to get off my duff and take on the planet, especially in the morning, and few can do that as efficiently as "Everybody's Everything." (Another is the blistering live version of "Can't Turn You Loose" by Edgar Winter's White Trash from their '72 album, "Roadwork." Better than caffeine.) Wisely employing the prestigious Tower of Power horns to accentuate the positive, this tune streaks by like an express train on a downhill slope. Okay, it ain't real complicated but it's a terrific way to spend three and a half minutes while getting dressed. Gregg's roaring Hammond and Neal's flaming guitar lines shine brightly but it's the triad of Carabello, Areas and Escovedo that fuel this furnace all the way to the fade out. "Guajira" is next and it's a south of the border rock & roll samba that'll make even the palest Caucasian want to dance (think "Smooth" 28 years before its time). The cool break that precedes guest Mario Ochoa's playful piano solo gets me every time, Jose's trumpet spasm paints a fine change of aural scenery and both guitarists perform magnificently.
They then hit the road in an all-out sprint again with "Jungle Strut," a fast-paced jam peppered with hot licks emanating from most everyone in the group. This one's an ideal example of Santana doing what comes naturally to them and I can't help but notice the Allman Brothers-ish dual harmony guitar lines that provide the melody. (Those Dixie roosters influenced everybody in their heyday, it would seem.) Carlos' amateurish "Everything's Coming Our Way" retards the momentum slightly but, as usual, the boys behind him make the most of what they have to work with and Rolie's room-filling Hammond organ in particular keeps it from becoming a yawn-inducer. They serve up Tito Puente's "Para Los Rumberos" for the finale and it's another smokin' track generously ladled over a Spanish en masse chorale that takes no prisoners. Another talented guest, Luis Gasca, wields a sharp Trompeta in the middle that's suitably wild and arresting. And there you have it.
The only virtuoso that doesn't get an opportunity to show off on this album is their phenomenal young drummer Michael Shrieve but that's the only oversight on Santana 3 I can find (other than the two aforementioned puny compositions). This was also the last go- round for founding members Carabello and bassist David Brown (rumor has it they were overindulging in Peruvian marching powder) and if they'd broken up at this juncture their legacy would still live on forever courtesy of classic rock radio. However, they not only survived but, after delivering three chart-topping and highly commercial LPs (in terms of sales, at least), they were courageous enough to completely abandon their comfort zone and give birth to a jazz/rock fusion landmark, "Caravanserai," thus securing for their ensemble a sacred place in the progressive rock hall of fame for all time to come. The material found on Santana III ranks well above the average, no doubt, but what they were about to accomplish with their upcoming masterpiece still staggers my senses. It's my belief that every progger worth his/her salt should have all four of this group's initial studio albums in their collection because high-quality, progressive-minded music never goes out of style.