Volume 2, Number 4 -- April, 1997
20 years ago, a Mexican blues lover, a fan of British Invasion pop, and a salsa-loving conga player got together in San Francisco's Mission District to play music. A certain magic was felt, and thus was born the Santana Blues Band. Eventually, as Santana, they released 3 incredible albums (Santana, Abraxas, and Santana 3), and then, not unusually, went their separate ways. Carlos Santana kept his name and his band, and went on to obvious stardom, one of the true guitar heroes. Greg Rollie took Neal Schon off to form Journey, which, no matter your opinion of them, was arguably one of the most successful musical acts of the eighties, with lots of flash, and some serious musicianship. All the members of that original Santana band went off to some form of success or other, never to be heard together again
until 1994, when Neal Schon asked Michael Carabello to put some congas on his solo album. The idea of putting the original band back together was discussed, and thus I have a copy of "Abraxas Pool" in my hands. And, to borrow from the clichés of music reviewers everywhere, if you like the Santana sound, especially from the first 3 albums, then you will find something here to suit your fancy. The driving Latin rhythms, soaring guitar work, pumping organ chords and powerful vocals You get it all. Some of it sounds a little dated, perhaps, in this day of grunge and "alternative rock", but it is undeniably good music.
In addition to Schon on guitar, Rollie on keyboards and vocals, and Carabello on congas, Chepita Areas is back on timbales, Michael Shrieve on drums, and Alphonso Johnson was recruited to hold down the bottom end. This is not exactly the original band, but all 5 members were significant parts of the Santana "sound" over the years. Neal Schon's guitar is almost as recognizable as that of Carlos Santana's, and he is just as talented. The rhythm section of the two Michael's (Shrieve and Carabello), along with Chepito Areas on timbales, drives the music along in the same style as on the original albums. And of course, Greg Rollie's voice is instantly recognizable. It has mellowed a bit in the last 20 years, but his organ playing is as powerful as ever. To round out the crew, Alphonso Johnson was recruited to play bass. Johnson is one of the great bass players and composers today, having worked with Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, John McLaughlin, Weather Report, and many others, including Carlos Santana.
Many of these tunes could be on a Santana album. (OK, so they covered "Jingo", which WAS on a Santana album) The rhythms, vocals, and even the timing of songs ("hey Neal - play the solo HERE") all sound like their previous group work.
To be more specific - "Baila Mi Cha-Cha" "Boom Ba Ya Ya", "Guajirona" and "Ya Llego" could all have been cut directly from a Santana album. You can hear echoes of "Baila Mi Hermana" and "Evil Ways" here. Some of it may be too derivative, but it still works. "Ya Llego" is a real percussion fest, with Carabello and Areas blasting back and forth over the top of a quiet bass line. The chanting Spanish lyrics merely separate the percussion jams. My favorite of these is "Baila Mi Cha-Cha" - it's hard NOT to dance to this tune! The congas and timbales drive the music along so well that it was almost jarring to hear, instead of the clear screaming of Carlos' guitar, the more processed sound of Neal Schon's solo. Rollie's piano solo is a great part of this song.
"Szabo" is a beautiful instrumental in tribute to Gabor Szabo, the jazz master who wrote "Gypsy Queen", a track on Santana album "Abraxas" album. You can hear echoes of Carlos in the solo (listen to "Europa" from the Amigos album), but it is Neal's piece, and one of the best tunes on the album.
"Waiting For You" and "Don't Give Up" sound a little too much like Journey for my taste. Pitch the vocal up to Steve Perry's range, and this IS Journey, with timbales.
All in all, this is a solid album, and a nice step back into my musical past. It is hard to listen to it without thinking where Carlos' guitar should be coming in - nothing against Neal Schon, who is an incredible guitarist, but I have come to identify Carlos' tone with congas and timbales. They just go together in my musical consciousness. The only question I have for this group is whether or not they will be able to shake that image, and carve one out for themselves. They are too good to be forever known as Carlos' backup band.