A Muser’s Guide to Santana

The other day, a dear friend emailed me a question about Santana. What follows – with minor edits – is the thread that ensued which became something of a career retrospective of and by a misc-nerdy Santana fan.

FRIEND: You are a big fan—you’ve told me—of Abraxas and Caravanserai (sp?), but I just learned that these were Santana’s second and fourth albums—respectively. What do you think about albums 1 and 3 “Santana” and “Santana III”? any opinion?

ME: I love this question! The first 3 albums are a package. They defined the classic Santana sound. Interestingly, the first and third both are named “Santana” but go by I and III. I, of course, was groundbreaking. It was an entirely new style of music blending Salsa and Afro rhythms with rock. Abraxas became more well-known and loved because it continued the sound of I and went to #1 on the charts; and because of the song Black Magic Woman, their highest charting single of that era. III followed in the vein of the other two.

My opinion is they all exist as one entity with minor differences between them. The first album sounds less polished than Abraxas which makes sense. They were pretty much a live band and were forced into the studio after their Woodstock breakout. Less polish, aside, I love the energy and vibe of I. And the song Treat is, indeed, a treat, as it adds a jazz vibe to the already innovative blending of styles.

Again, not a whole lot to distinguish III from Abraxas. It does sound even more polished to me than Abraxas but the high energy, rhythmic sound is still there. One difference that can be noticed is the addition of a then 17-year old Neal Schon who would soon go on to form Journey with Santana’s keyboard player Greg Rolie. The sound of the guitar(s) – so vital in the band – is different on III from the other two in a way that I love. Toussaint L’Overture is one of my all-time fave songs. It has all the elements of the classic sound with its high percussive energy, soaring Salsa-style vocal harmonies (that slay me), and a fabulous guitar “duel” with Carlos and Neal exchanging solos. The difference in their styles is palpable: Carlos’ is more legato interrupted by his piercing stabs; Neal’s is all speed, fire and fury. The contrast – set against the vocal harmonies – is glorious. I can still be brought to tears by this song.

The fourth album, Caravanserai, was a dramatic departure. It was the line of demarcation/point of no return/Rubicon that separated all that followed from the first three albums. Clive Davis thought it would lead to their commercial demise or “career suicide” as he referred to it at the time. While the album did chart from the momentum and expectations of the first three albums, it was the end Santana being a top of the charts type band until Supernatural. As I’ve told you, I detested Caravanserai at first. I didn’t get it and I was one of the many who had expectations of a sound that I didn’t get. Until I got it. 🙂

How’s that? 🙂

FRIEND: Great answer—very helpful. Do you have all of his/their albums? There are so many—Santana put out seven more albums just in the 70s. I know they lost their massive popularity after III, but when did they lose Ray (or did they ever)?

ME: I do have all their studio albums (and some of the live albums, and with a few exceptions, his solo albums). The late 70s veered towards pop. I rather liked Amigos and Open Secrets, lightweight though they may be. I really liked the lead singer he had at the time, Greg Walker. His voice made those couple of albums tolerable. Amigos has the song Europa which many consider his greatest instrumental. The 80s were dreadful. I bought the albums more for being a historical completist/collector. For the most part, I listened to them once and shelved them. They were stupefyingly awful.

Interestingly, that period had some of his best solo album work. Havana Moon was decent. The album Blues for Salvador won him his first Grammy. I love that album. It was an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Of course, 1999 brought the comeback with Supernatural. It’s an incredible pop/rock record. I also really like (2012) Shapeshifter and his new album Africa Speaks. Guitar Heaven (covers of rock classics) was a bad idea but there’s a killer version of AC/DC’s Back in Black done as a rock/rap with Nas. That song is a fave.

FRIEND: This is really rich—I’m doing a Santana deep dive, and this will be my guide!

ME: Always more where all of this comes from – starting now LOL.

Once I embraced Caravanserai, I loved the “second era” of Santana which to me were the albums Caravanserai, Welcome, Lotus (live), and Barboletta, especially Barboletta (the song Promise of a Fisherman – ahhhhhh) which I think of as Caravanserai II. These albums (including his very progressive solo work at the time which I wasn’t a fan of: Love, Devotion and Surrender; Illuminations) were radically different from the first three “classic” Santana records. There’s a lot for me to unpack as to why I love these second era albums but it involves a combination of subjective enjoyment and objective appreciation for how hard it is to fundamentally change directions musically and still be excellent. (Note to self: Who else has done this? What are the criteria for “fundamentally change directions?)

Amigos came after that and kicked off the slow demise which was barely tolerable at first and then became insufferable until Supernatural. If these dark ages were the Third Era, Supernatural kicked off the Fourth Era, which also had a downward descent.

The Fifth Era – who gets that many? – of less intentionally commercial records compared with the Supernatural/Fourth Era begins with Shapeshifter. Of that era, I love Shapeshifter; didn’t like Corazon; detested Santana IV; and love Africa Speaks.

Sidenote: the Lotus live album (in Japan) was something of a cult classic until CDs and streaming came along. It was a limited printing, import, 3 album set – rare on all counts. Also, expensive. Back in the day, I ran into one copy of it at my favorite record store (Discount Records, Vestal, NY) almost right when it came out. I didn’t even know it existed. It was an “I’m broke but need to have this” moment. Mind you, it was an import, 3-album set. Like I said, expensive. But basic life necessities don’t stand a chance against music addiction. Lotus is a fascinating live compilation and capstone of the first two Eras.

Sidenote II: the fact that I can talk 50 years(!) later about five eras of Santana speaks to how powerful that Woodstock moment was.

FRIEND: I’m so eager to jump into this—your backdrop makes this so much more attractive. It feels like a guide or map to something that would have otherwise been pretty overwhelming.

Thanks for giving me the time.

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