Santana IV

Santana

Santana IV Records, 2016

http://www.santana.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/09/2016

Reunions are typically more fun for the players than the audience. The players get to hang with their old band, relive the glory days, and hopefully make a buck or two off their followers’ nostalgic impluses. New music—if that’s even part of the deal—is often almost an afterthought, and typically results in reviewers pulling out phrases like “lukewarm rehash” (ironic since the phrase also describes itself). The point is, reunited bands can’t just rely on rose-tinted memories of the past; to succeed in making worthwhile new music, there has to be an urgency and friction amongst the players right now, in the present moment, that generates real heat.

The group guitarist Carlos Santana founded in 1966 as the Santana Blues Band has always had a fluid lineup, rarely keeping the same players on board for more than an album or two. Having scored an unexpected late-career hit with 1999’s guest-star-filled Supernatural, Santana appeared content to repeat that formula over the decade that followed, relying mostly on outside songwriters, producers and singers and lapsing more and more into formula pop rather than the fiery Afro-Cuban blues-rock that made him famous in the first place. A similar all-star approach focused on Latin music, 2014’s Corazon, seemed to reinvigorate Santana a bit, but he was still a maestro in search of a band.

Of all the lineups Santana featured over the years, the group that made Santana III in 1971 might be the most revered; it was a memorable album delivered by what turned out to be an all-star band. After playing on that disc and one more (1972's jazz-tinged Caravanserai), vocalist/organist Gregg Rolie and teenaged guitar prodigy Neal Schon left to form Journey, the band Schon still leads to this day. Founding Santana conguero/percussionist Michael Carabello departed immediately after III, while founding drummer Michael Shrieve stuck around for a couple of additional albums before also moving on to a very successful career of solo and session work. (These five reunited once before without Santana himself in 1997, calling themselves Abraxas Pool after the group’s prior 1970 album Abraxas.)

After years of cajoling from Schon, Carlos finally agreed to a full reunion of the survivors from the Santana III lineup—joined by latter-era Santana stalwarts Benny Rietveld (bass) and Karl Perazzo (percussion)—to see what fresh magic they might be able to conjure up together. The end result, the aptly-named Santana IV, is a joy-filled surprise, a reunion album that catches fire from the start and never once lapses into nostalgia, even as it revisits familiar musical territory.

Taking its cues from past classics like “Jingo” and “Oye Como Va,” the African chant “Yambu” opens things up with a heady dose of tribal thump and Rolie’s vintage Hammond organ, raising expectations with its vigor and vibrancy before “Shake It” comes along with an even heavier attack that confirms that the boys mean business. This isn’t just a friendly nostalgia wallow; everyone brought their “A” game, and came to play. “Shake It” is a heavy, tasty jam with Rolie singing his heart out while Santana and Schon duel to a draw with the rhythm section egging them on from underneath.

“Anywhere You Want To Go” is a Rolie tune that’s clearly intended as a radio single and is impressive at that, with a steady backbeat, a sturdy hook and ferocious dueling Santana/Schon solos in the fifth minute. If only there had been an outside producer in the picture to advise them against the lounge-worthy spoken-word intro; it’s the only blemish on this strong cut.

“Fillmore East” follows, an instrumental tribute to Santana / Journey manager Bill Graham that showcases the two guitar-slingers. Santana’s playing is throaty and wildly expressive, while Schon’s is nimble and precise, with phenomenally clean tone; when they start playing off each other, it’s a beautiful thing. This long, smoldering, intense instrumental leaves abundant room to solo, but never devolves into a contest based on speed or flash; it’s all about feel, and it’s flat-out gorgeous.

Having re-established the band’s chops in every facet of their game with this opening quartet of songs, the boys proceed to deliver what’s legitimately the best Santana album in almost four decades.

Two tracks featuring special guest Ronald Isley on lead vocals emphasize the searching, spiritual side of the group. “Love Makes The World Go Round” opens with classic Santana sizzle—guitars, organ, fast-paced percussion—and Isley’s soulful, rather Greg Walker-esque lead vocal, before Schon, Rolie and Santana each unleash tight, smoking solos. “Freedom In Your Mind” offers an alternate take on the same basic template.

From there you get more—much more—of each of the above. There are fiery full-tilt jams (“Choo Choo/All Aboard”), dreamy instrumentals (“Suenos,” which cheekily opens with two bars of the Bond theme), and tasteful ballads (“Blues Magic”).

The joyous, celebratory “Come As You Are” probably should have been the closer, a rhythm section workout decorated with rangy solos from the entire firm of Rolie, Schon and Santana. Seems the boys couldn’t resist adding one more, though, and the closing slow-burner “Forgiveness” is a good one, starting out with Santana playing low, rumbly and distorted while Schon takes the high warbly notes. It wraps seven and a half minutes later with percussion flourishes capping off what was clearly a very enjoyable collaboration.

Not everything here matches the standard the album sets early on; neither the cheesy come-ons found in the lyrics of tracks like “Caminando” nor the rather formulaic approaches taken on cuts like “Leave Me Alone” and “You And I” add much to the conversation. And the number of extended instrumental bits may test the patience of listeners who prefer songs to jams; again, an outside producer might have helped tighten things up, though it can be hard to argue with the velocity-driven logic of a gifted band with a pair of ace guitarists up front.

Uncharacteristically for such ventures, Santana IV is more than just a reunion, it’s a true sequel, and overall a damned impressive one, an energetic, powerful set fueled by genuine heat and soul. Forty-five years later, this band clearly still remembers what made them special in the first place.

Rating: B+

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© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Santana IV Records, and is used for informational purposes only.