Perhaps it’s easy to forget just what Santana used to represent back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Way back before Carlos became a Grammy-winning AOR elder-statesman, back even before his adventures in Eastern spirituality, taking the name Devadip and collaborating with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Turiya Alice Coltrane, turning out astral jazz-rock masterpieces in praise of the guru Sri Chimnoy — back before all of this, Santana was a band.
Get it straight, though, we’re not talking about one of today’s stage-school confections of fame-hungry pups. This band was tough, more like a gang than a pop group: hirsute, bare-chested, testosterone-fuelled, drug-loving and — most unusual for the times — multi-racial. Damn, they looked (and sounded) dangerous! As Bill Graham describes them, introducing the concert that makes up the second disc of this legacy re-release of Santana III, this was “the sounds from the streets.”
And, of course, they were hip. After bursting onto the scene with their legendary mescaline-crazed performance at Woodstock in ’69, they were the counterculture’s party band of choice. No wonder, then, that this live disc captures them as the headline act on the last night at that arch hippie-nexus, the original Filmore West, on July 4th, 1971. They were there to tear the house down and, on the evidence of this previously unissued archival recording, that’s exactly what they did.
In what many consider to be the band’s most exciting line up, Carlos is joined in the frontline by the 15-year old wunderkind Neal Schon on guitar, and Gregg Rolie on Hammond organ, with David Brown holding down a heavy bass. But, of course, what really makes it fly is the formidable percussion section of Michael Shrieve of drums, Jose Chepito Areas on timbales and congas, Michael P.R. Carabello on congas, and Thomas “Coke” Escovedo on back-up percussion.
Blazing through most of Santana III, and throwing in tight versions of classics like “Black Magic Woman”, “Gypsy Queen”, and “Incident at Neshabur”, they’re clearly on fire and loving every minute of it. What makes this disc indispensable to fans and musicologists, though, is a take on Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way” that begins with the fragile opening refrain picked out on guitar, before diving into a rumbling bass groove. All of this sets the table for some stratospheric three-way soloing from Santana, Schon, and Rolie. Of course, it’s great fun but it’s also a fascinating snapshot of the tumultuous musical melting-pot of the times, with funk influencing rock influencing jazz influencing soul. Sure, Carlos is acknowledging his debt to Miles and the early jazz-rock templates of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but there’s also a sense that he’s making plain Miles’s own appropriation of the kind of blistering rock moves that Santana helped to bring into being — brought full circle a few years later when Carlos worked with John McLaughlin, the British guitar legend who gave Miles’s early ’70s albums so much of their incendiary spark.
With this gig being the final act on the closing night of the Filmore, there’s a sense of an era coming to a close: the end of the 1960s, harsh political realities, and continued war in South East Asia all taking some of the gleam off of the hippie dream. And, in its own way, the album Santana III represents something of a swansong. Shortly after its release, over-touring, mismanagement, and musical differences led to the break-up of this first incarnation of Santana. Thankfully, this — their last recording together — catches them at the height of their powers. The singles “No One to Depend On” and “Everything’s Coming Our Way” are classic Latino soul, but “Jungle Strut” is the freshest sounding cut on the album. A Gene Ammons soul-jazz sax boiler, irresistibly propelled here by super-tight percussion and no-holds-barred solos from the three man front line — with Rolie’s Hammond organ sounding especially alive.
For the Santana scholar, though, the bonus cuts on this disc will undoubtedly be of the most interest. “Gumbo” is an up-tempo live favorite that blends Sly Stone with Dr. John; “Folsom Street One” is a previously unheard jazzy groove that points towards later fusion experiments; and “Bambeye” is a 10-minute percussion workout that highlights the power of the band’s psychedelic Tito Puente mutation.
There’s so much to enjoy here, if only you can turn back the tide of history, get into context, and make like it’s 1971. Viva Santana!