Monday, 13 January 2020

Santana - The Early Years (1969-1974)



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The albums covered here are:-

Santana (1969)
Abraxas (1970)
Santana III (1971)
Caravanserai (1972)
Welcome (1973)
and Borboletta (1974)

Scroll down to read the reviews.

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SANTANA (1969)

1. Waiting
2. Evil Ways
3. Shades Of Time
4. Savor
5. Jingo
6. Persuasion
7. Treat
8. You Just Don't Care
9. Soul Sacrifice         

This is the debut studio album by the now-legendary Latin “fusion” rock band Santana released in 1969. Over half of the album's length is composed of instrumental music, recorded by what was originally intended to be a purely free-form jam band. At the suggestion of manager Bill Graham, the band took to writing more conventional songs for more impact, but managed to retain the essence of improvisation in the music. This remained throughout their career.
                                       
After the band played a storming set at that summer’s Woodstock festival, the album was eagerly awaited. It is packed with great Latin-flavoured, rhythmic instrumentals, such as the intoxicating Jingo (which doesn’t have many vocals, but does have a few), Savor, the excellent, pulsating Soul SacrificeWaiting, which perfectly introduced the band’s organ/percussion/guitar sound, and the almost jazz-funky Treat. The stunning Latin percussion element of the band welded perfectly with Carlos Santana’s unique and now iconic lead guitar. 

  

Evil Ways was a single, and was the first example of their branching out into writing songs as well as instrumentals. A good one it was too. Rhythmic, infectious and invigorating. Despite having vocals, there were also lengthy instrumentals parts too. Shades Of Time is a very late 60s rock song, without quite so much Latin influence as others on the album, but with a stunning Carlos Santana guitar break, however. It segues perfectly into the Latin rock instrumental Savor and subsequently into the electrifying Jingo. Thrilling stuff for a debut album.

Persuasion is more of a conventional rock song. Almost bluesy in places. You Just Don't Care is a great slab of heavy rock.

Putting a historical context on things, in 1969, this band really were quite unique. In many ways they remained so.

Upon release, it did not get a good critical reception, which was somewhat unfair, particularly considering the band were very young at the time. It is viewed more positively in retrospect though. All things considered, it is an astonishingly mature debut album.

The three bonus live tracks serve as examples of just what a great live band they were.

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ABRAXAS (1970)

1. Singing Winds, Crying Beasts
2. Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen
3. Oye Como Va
4. Incident At Neshabur
5. Se A Cabo
6. Mother's Daughter
7. Samba Pa Ti
8. Hope You're Feeling Better
9. El Nicoya  

Abraxas builds on the solid Latin rock instrumental with a few vocal tracks dotted around foundation of Santana’s impressive first album. Their trademark fusion of Latin percussion rhythms and Carlos Santana’s unique lead guitar sound was now firmly established as the Santana sound. Still only comparatively young, Santana’s first three albums really were ground-breaking and, in many ways, were never bettered.
                                               
Singing Winds, Crying Beasts is a percussion-driven rhythmic opener before the album’s first vocal “rock” song in a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Black Magic Woman and its instrumental partner, Gypsy Queen.

Oye Como Va is a vocal track in Spanish, with a hypnotic, unforgettable groove, while the instrumental Incident At Neshabur sees Gregg Rolie’s organ work blend with some of the band’s heaviest guitar work thus far. It was this sort of track which attracted many traditional rock fans to Santana. Nice piano solo at the end too. Se A Cabo continues in the same swirling organ, heavy guitar, frantic percussion vein. Stunning conga solo bit on this from the prodigiously talented Nicaraguan Jose “Chepito” Areas.

Mother’s Daughter is an excellent early 70s style rock song, with a rousing guitar riff and a convincing vocal. Would have made a good single. Maybe the guitar work in the middle was considered a bit too intense.

Then, of course, is the big hit song in the beautiful instrumental Carlos Santana vehicle Samba Pa Ti. Don’t forget the organ break in the middle as well. Or the bass and percussion for that matter. All these years later, this track is possibly Santana’s most instantly recognisable.

Hope You’re Feeling Better suffers from some muddy production - a muffled vocal and some scratchy guitar, particularly at the song’s beginning. It is a small low point in an otherwise excellent album. However, there is still some stirring guitar in the final part though. El Nicoya is a heady piece of Latin rhythmic funk/rock to end off an impressive outing, albeit a little too short at a minute and a half.

Once again, the three bonus live tracks are excellent.

 

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SANTANA III (1971)

1. Batuka
2. No One To Depend On
3. Taboo
4. Toussaint L'Overture
5. Everybody's Everything
6. Guajira
7. Jungle Strut
8. Everything's Coming Our Way
9. Para Los Rumberos    

Santana’s third album in two years was more of the successful same of the previous two. Gorgeous, uplifting, immaculately played Latin rock. This was to be the last album by the Woodstock era original line up, before the members changed a little and the new band diversified into more mystical, jazz fusion music. Although later albums have their merit. This, for me, was classic Santana. 
                                     
Batuka is the usual high octane, rhythmic instrumental starter and No One To Depend On is the killer vocal second track. It ends up with a frantically wonderful guitar, organ drum trade off before it eases effortlessly back into the main groove of the track. Santana really nailed what they did at this point. Superb.

 

Taboo continues the instrumental with a little bit of vocal trend. It really is all about the music, to be honest, the vocals are just an embellishment, like another instrument. Toussaint L'Overture is a frenetic piece of percussion and organ heaven with a bit of Spanish chanted vocals. Santana kicked ass in these first three albums, make no mistake. The energy never lets up.

Everybody's Everything is an upbeat, powerful rocker, while Guajira is a salsafied, Cuban-style Latin groove with some killer guitar. Jungle Strut is another piece of note-perfect Latin rock, less Latin and heavier than Guajira. Everything's Coming Our Way is an almost soulful, melodic song that would have made a good single. As with all the tracks, the percussion is top drawer. Para Los Rumberos finishes the album off in energetic Spanish vocal/fast paced instrumental style.

Three top albums.



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CARAVANSERAI (1972)

1. Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation
2. Waves Within
3. Look Up (To See What's Coming Down)
4. Just In Time To See The Sun
5. Song Of The Wind
6. All The Love of The Universe
7. Future Primitive
8. Stone Flower
9. La Fuente Del Ritmo
10. Every Step Of The Way       

After three ground-breaking albums of red hot fusion of latin salsa rhythms and rock electric guitar, Santana changed their line-up slightly and also their style, slightly, releasing this now classic album of extended jazzy, stream of consciousness largely instrumental workouts.
       
Yes, the trademark percussion is still there, particularly on frenetic cuts like La Fuente Del Ritmo, but much of the material is quite trippy, meandering but infectious journeying into slowed-down jazzy guitar sounds, freaky keyboards, man, and intoxicating rhythms, such on the captivating closer, Every Step Of The Way. It is almost classical in its powerful, dramatic execution, full of surging keyboard riffs, wonderful Carlos Santana guitar and frantic percussion.

 

There are only three tracks with vocals, the evocative Stone Flower,  the psychedelic All The Love Of The Universe and Just In Time To See The Sun. The album had no hit singles and, listening to it, you feel that sense of intense seriousness. I remember at school when this came out, I was fourteen at the time. There was one boy who carried this album around under his arm. Looking back, that was a remarkably mature choice for a fourteen year-old. The album is full of musical complexity but it utterly uncommercial. After their triumphs at Woodstock in the late sixties, the release of this started a downturn in Santana's popularity. They became a band for the discerning members of the cognoscenti for a while, until a renaissance in the late seventies with their cover of The Zombies' She's Not There and a further one in the late nineties with Supernatural. That said, listen to this a few times and it starts to get into your bloodstream. Its pulsating rhythms, improvisation and sheer musical adventurousness have gained it considerable critical kudos in subsequent years.

The album is unpredictable, beguiling and highly listenable. Just don't expect a singalong - sit back and try to absorb its sheer brilliance. Take two tracks like Waves Within and Look Up (To See What's Coming Down) as examples, then the power of the intro to  Just In Time To See The Sun. That guitar on Song Of The Wind and the cymbal work behind it. Phenomenal stuff. Highly recommended. They really don't make music like this these days. Wonderful cover art too.

 

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WELCOME (1973)

1. Going Home
2. Love, Devotion & Surrender
3. Samba De Sausalito
4. When I Look Into Your Eyes
5. Yours Is The Light
6. Mother Africa
7. Light Of Life
8. Flame-Sky
9. Welcome
10. Mantra              

After the ambient, laid-back grooves of Caravanserai and the John Coltrane jazz-influenced Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin collaboration of Love, Devotion, Surrender, this was an experimental, futuristic album that perplexed Santana's Latin rock fans even more than the previous two. It was pretty much a jazz album with rock influences rather than the other way round. It is largely divided into to two distinct parts - the old vinyl "sides". Overall, the first one is lighter and more lively, with more vocals, the second more intense and instrumental.
                                   
The album begins with four minutes of ambient percussive noise in Going Home, which, if I have to be honest, while it sets the mood, doesn't really get anywhere and is a minute or so too long. It is arranged by John Coltrane's widow, Alice Coltrane, however. I still find it superfluous though. Love, Devotion & Surrender takes its name from the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin album from the same year. It is an upbeat, rhythmic rock-ish number with a laid-back soully jazz vocal from Santana and an attractive female vocal from Wendy Haas. As you would possibly expect, Samba De Sausalito is a Latin-influenced instrumental groove, full of enticing percussion and funky keyboards.

 

When I Look Into Your Eyes is a delicious soft rock groove with a lovely soul vocal from new band member Leon ThomasWendy Haas joins in as well, most fetchingly. Yours Is The Light has a Girl From Ipanema salsa-style vocal and indeed, rhythm (or is it bossa nova?). Definitely Afro-Brazilian. Santana's guitar arrives for the first really notable time to keep his devotees happy, no doubt. His soloing is, of course, impressive. Mother Africa is an instrumental featuring African instruments such as the appealing marimba at the beginning and the shekere, a percussion instrument made from a gourd. Half way through, some futuristic jazz vibes send it all a bit spacey, man, and some jazzy saxophone joins Santana's guitar to render it a most intriguing and ground-breaking track.

Light Of Life has another relaxing jazzy feel and suitable vocal from Thomas. It is augmented by a beautiful bass and occasional guitar from Santana. As is often the case, instrumentals now see the album out, beginning with the gorgeous eleven minutes of Flame-Sky. Santana's guitar has free rein here. John McLaughlin returns on this track too to joust with Santana. It is all very "free-form" and has some excellent rock-ish passages. Welcome has some slow-pace Santana guitar but it is still dominated by experimental percussion sounds with differentiate it from the more instantly appealing material on earlier albums. It is a very ambient number that drifts slowly to its conclusion peacefully without ever getting above walking pace. The bonus track on the most recent CD release, Mantra is an intoxicating shuffling slice of futuristic jazzy rock groove.

While the old "side one" is definitely invigorating, I find the old "side two" an acquired taste. I understand why it is considered musically adventurous and it certainly is that, but there are other passages on Santana albums that I prefer more. The Borboletta album, for example. Some see this as one of Santana's finest creations. I know where they are coming from, but my choice of listening from this period is Borboletta and Caravanserai.



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BORBOLETTA (1974)

1. Spring Manifestations
2. Canto De Los Flores
3. Life Is Anew
4. Give And Take
5. One With The Sun
6. Aspirations
7. Practice What You Preach
8. Mirage
9. Here And Now
10. Flor De Canela
11. Promise Of A Fisherman
12. Borboletta    

Those initial three frantic Latin rhythm meets jazz and seriously searing guitar albums seem a long time away now as the emphasis is now vey much on ambient jazz/funk/soul fusion. Keyboards and percussion are the dominant features, with Carlos Santana's trademark guitar only making occasional appearances. Its bright, tropical turquoise cover featuring a butterfly somehow suits the vibe of the album. The album is actually quite upbeat at times, far more than 1972's Caravanserai and 1973's experimental, often intense Welcome. It is still full of extremely influential material, despite its supposedly laid-back reputation.
                                        
Spring Manifestation is an ambient, tropical-sounding short sound effects into before a sumptuous bass line leads into the intoxicating, laid-back groove of Canto De Los Flores. Bassy percussion, flutes and gentle keyboards are the order f the day on this, not a guitar solo to be found. Vocals arrive for the tuneful, catchy jazz/soul of Life Is Anew. Once again, a funky keyboard dominates, as opposed to a guitar. It has a killer organ/percussion interplay in the middle, however. Then Carlos's guitar finally gets here, impressively, of course. A rhythmic percussion/drum sound drives the funk rock of Give And Take, together with shared soul groove vocals. This almost sounds like a blaxploitation slice of urban funk. The drum/guitar play-off half way through is powerful and entrancing, as is the saxophone. This is a solid, muscular kick-ass cut, it has to be said, stronger than anything on an album like Caravanserai.

  

One With The Sun is a deliciously laid-back easy Santana groove. It has hippy echoes in both its sentiments and sound. Some excellent guitar augments the track near the end.  The instrumental Aspirations fades in with some typically Santana frantic-pace percussion together with some cool organ and futuristic-sounding jazzy saxophone (the like of which David Bowie used a lot on Low and "Heroes" in 1977 and 1978). It is one of the albums most experimental, innovative cuts.

Santana's guitar gracefully introduces Practice What You Preach, which is a gently soulful vocal number. Vocals continue on the addictive funky rhythm of Mirage. It is the album's instantly catchy and melodically memorable track. The guitar cuts into the rhythm and the drum beat is warmly insistent throughout. That is that for vocals now, and we get four instrumentals to finish the album. Here And Now is a psychedelic-sounding guitar and drum groove with some seriously pounding drums which effortlessly segue into the frantic percussion of Flor De Canela. This is very much a typical Santana track and anyone listening to it would immediately recognise it as such. This blends into the extended Promise Of A Fisherman, continuing the same percussion rhythm. Santana's guitar is given far more breathing space on here, however and he lets it float around, along with the organ.

Borboletta ends the album, as it had begun, with jungle noises and African-sounding vocals over some random percussion sounds. In conclusion, this is a more vibrant album than it has often been given credit for. A bit of an underrated treasure.



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