I first got into Santana when I moved to Colorado in 1978. Shortly thereafter, I learned their best work was their first four albums between 1969-72 [Santana, Abraxas, Santana III, and Caravanserai]. One of the oldest clichés in the music business when a band splits up is “musical differences,” but in Santana’s case it was the truth. Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon were perfectly happy in sticking with the Latin rock formula, while Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve were more interested in jazz, specifically that of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And so, after four albums, the musicians went their separate ways [no pun intended]. Santana and Shrieve stuck around and cut Love Devotion Surrender with John McLaughlin [to include their take on Coltrane’s A Love Supreme], while Rolie and Schon formed Journey. The Santana band of old [especially after Neal Schon came on board in 1971] was like the original Allman Brothers Band. There were two lead guitar players who complemented, not competed against, each other. Both bands had a back line of thunderous percussion, and both had a fine singing organist/songwriter named Gregg.
What followed is well-known to anyone who has been paying attention. Journey played radio-friendly chick music, especially after Steve Perry arrived. It sold by the truckload, but so does Britney Spears. Santana had hits and misses, mostly misses. Zebop! was a good record, but let’s face it – Winning is a far cry from Black Magic Woman. As time went by, Santana the band became Santana the brand name, and not a very marketable one at that. Then Carlos signed with Arista Records and Clive Davis, the guy who gave us Whitney Houston [really boring chick music]. It was his idea to pair Carlos with guest stars to get him back on the radio. The formula worked once with Supernatural. But Clive being the record company boss, wanted more of the same thing and the formula ran into the ground. Carlos was a guest on his own albums. Oh the humanity! There was a glimmer of hope with Shape Shifter, a mostly-instrumental album that reminds us that Carlos is a damn fine guitar player who has more than one lick to play. Then there was the abominable Corazón, the Spanish-language version of Supernatural [Tony shudders…].
Imagine my surprise when over a year ago I read Carlos was getting the band back together. It was the same feeling I had when Deep Purple Mk II reunited and made Perfect Strangers back in 1984. Gregg Rolie, the best singer and organ player Santana ever had or will ever have, was back, as was Michael Shrieve, Mike Carabello, and Neal Schon. David Brown died in 2000, and Jose Chepito Areas is missing in action. Filling those spots are percussionist Karl Perazzo and bassist Benny Rietveld from the last Santana band.
My hopes for Santana IV – that it not suck, that is compares favorably with the first four albums, and that there’s nothing slightly resembling Smooth. The results? Where has this album been since 1972? Gregg Rolie is singing better now in his 60s than he did in his 20s. The fiery Hammond B3 is back, Neal Schon is pushing Carlos like he hasn’t been pushed for a long time. It took me awhile, but I think I can tell the guitarists apart. Put on your headphones and listen to Neal Schon panned all the way to the right, Carlos is panned to the left. Sometimes the two guitarists meet in the middle. The percussion is flawless. Santana IV sounds like a cross-between their commercial peak Santana III and the adventurous Caravanserai. For some reviewers, there’s too much music on this disc. – screw them! For my money, you can’t have enough Santana music of this quality.
Yambu – Chanting, lots of it. But it serves notice that the real Santana is back!
Shake It – Gregg Rolie telegraphs how the song is going to go in the first line - Doesn’t matter what I know/Gonna find the groove that don’t let go… Where has this band been the last 45 years? This is the biggest, nastiest, most monstrous groove Santana and his musicians of choice have played since the 1987 instrumental Touchdown Raiders. Not only is the groove back, but also Neal Schon has lit a fire under Carols’ ass like what hasn’t happened for much too long. Carlos plays the riff, Neal freaks out on the wah-wah and the whammy bar. Heaven…
Anywhere You Want To Go – Carlos gets a speaking part - Hey baby! What’s your name, baby? Come over here, girl – sit on my lap. Albert King used to do that on his records. But soon thereafter the band launches into another fine groove not unlike Oye Como Va. This is the first single from Santana IV. I’m loving this album already…
Fillmore East – When I first saw the name I knew it would be an instrumental. The question was would it bring the thunder like Soul Sacrifice, or would be cosmic like a Caravanserai tune? This is a long, spacey but subdued jam, so I’m going with “cosmic.”
Love Makes the World Go Round and Freedom in Your Mind - Ronald Isley on guest vocals. I have a few rules when it comes to music. One rule is this - If I don’t like what I hear within 10-15 seconds, I probably never will. These two songs of peace, love and cosmic hippie shit fit that category. Note to Carlos – if you want guest vocalists, save it for the umpteenth iteration of Supernatural.
Choo Choo – A dance tune that I actually like. The lyrics are cringe worthy, but the music makes up for it.
All Aboard – The instrumental coda to Choo Choo, like Savor was for Shades of Time on the first Santana album [you know, right before Jingo].
Sueños – As the title suggests, this is a dreamy instrumental that would fit nicely on Caravanserai.
Caminando - it's got cheesy synth horns, but it's an "okay" song. The guitar interplay between Carlos and Neal saves the track from disaster. Skip this one.
Blues Magic – Fifty years after being known as the Santana Blues Band, these guys finally cut a blues song. It’s a good one. Think Taboo from Santana III.
Echizo – An up-tempo instrumental with which I have one complaint – it’s too short. It fades at the end, so I know there’s more.
Leave Me Alone – This is another strong vocal number. Solid.
You And I – Another fine instrumental. This one is of the slow piano/guitar variety.
Come As You Are – “Hola! Hola-la-la! Hola! Just come as you are.” Um…no. This didn’t pass the 15-second test. Skip this track.
Forgiveness – Epic closer. This one veers very close to Jeff Beck territory. A soulful vocal from Gregg Rolie is icing on the cake.
Bottom line – Welcome back, gentlemen. What took you so damn long? I’ve waited a long time for this. The more I listen to it, the more I like it. Of the sixteen tracks on this album, twelve of them are keepers. Buy this album! I hope there’s more where this came from. If you can find it, buy Shape Shifters as well.