Watching Santana’s incendiary performance in the concert film of Woodstock, it’s almost beyond comprehension to realize that this was a band that had yet to release its debut album. That wouldn’t happen until August 19, 1969, a day after Jimi Hendrix’s early-morning set would close the “3 Days of Peace & Love.” It would seem like a stroke of marketing genius, but at the time “only” 250,000 people had seen Santana’s set. It wasn’t until the release of the movie the following year that the rest of us got to see the sextet’s mind-blowing rendition of “Soul Sacrifice,” and by that time the group’s self-titled debut had gone gold, largely on the strength of the Top 10 single “Evil Ways.”
This two-CD package takes a wide-angle (2 hours, 15 minutes) view of Carlos Santana’s groundbreaking band – with outtakes from the original album, aborted sessions four months earlier, and the seven-song, 45-minute set the group played at Woodstock. It shows the group’s maturation, though the outfit (originally dubbed the Santana Blues Band) already had three years of gigging under its belt.
On their January ’69 sessions, produced by David Rubinson, the band is cruder and a bit tentative, which could be chalked up to nerves. But a big change would take place by the time they re-entered the studio in May, with producer Brent Dangerfield. With David Brown still the rock-solid anchor on bass, the all-important rhythm section pushing frontmen Carlos and singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie was overhauled – with Mike Carabello replacing Marcus Malone on congas; Chepito Areas joining, on timbales and occasional trumpet; and one of rock’s all-time greatest drummers, 19-year-old Michael Shrieve, supplanting Bob Livingston.
But the most riveting element was Carlos Santana’s crying, soaring guitar – as instantly recognizable then as it is 35 years later. (Is there a more identifiable rock guitarist?)
For the album, pianist Alberto Gianquinto (of the James Cotton Blues Band, but also a fine jazz player) lent his arranging skills and echoed manager Bill Graham’s advice to pare down the jamming and concentrate on songs. In fact, it was Graham who convinced the group to record Latin percussionist Willie Bobo’s “Evil Ways” over their objections. That, no doubt, helped get Santana’s foot in the door, but it’s still remarkable that a mostly instrumental album that was as much jazz as it was rock (specifically, Afro-Cuban jazz) could become a commercial success. (“Jingo,” from African percussionist Olatunji got as high as #56 on Billboard ‘s singles chart.) It says a lot about that period but even more about Santana. One was as responsible as the other, and this reissue is a perfect window on that watershed in rock’s history.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.