2000 / Music

Commentary: Santana Is ‘Everybody’s Everything’

Carlos Santana’s ‘Supernatural’ Wins 9 Grammys

Photo: "Smooth" Music Video

Photo: “Smooth” Music Video

For many, it was a moment of glory and amazement. After 30 years without a hit single and a career spent wandering the popular music fringes, Carlos Santana strode onto the Grammy stage eight times Wednesday evening. A ninth trip was made by songwriters Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur for “Smooth.”

Santana’s album, “Supernatural,” and tracks from it won awards for album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, rock album, rock performance by a duo or group with vocal, pop performance by a duo or group with vocal, pop instrumental performance, pop collaboration with vocals and rock instrumental performance.

A modest and hyper-spiritual Santana was humble in accepting this universal praise. The man who was written off as a “has-been” and was without a major label deal at the end of the 1990s saw his album hailed as a return to form.

Now let me say that I don’t want to rain on Santana’s day, but I have a problem with this: It’s not real. I don’t believe that this is a return to form of any kind.

It has been more than 30 years since Carlos Santana wrote or recorded a song that captured the popular imagination, and “Supernatural” won’t put an end to that streak.

Before proceeding, I must say that I really like Santana. His band’s music in the late ’60s and early ’70s was not only a fascinating combination of rock with Latin and African styles; it was also highly influential among his contemporaries. Most important, however, it was compelling. The music was fire-and-brimstone spirituality, sexual energy and psychedelia immersed in a polyrhythmic language that was both vaguely familiar and completely new. It’s been a long time since those days.

Carlos Santana’s life began in Mexico, where his musician father gave him an early musical education. In the mid-’50s his family moved to Tijuana, where young Carlos became entranced with the electric blues of B.B King, Lightin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters. By 1961, he and his family moved to San Francisco.

It was in San Francisco that Santana came of age and formed an interracial combo by the mid-’60s: the Santana Blues Band.

Santana and his band got their big break at Woodstock in 1969, where they played a blistering set while fried on “psychedelics.” An unsigned band at the time of the festival, they were included at the behest of uber-promoter Bill Graham. Graham was a patron to the band and remained a close friend until his death in 1991.

The band (which included future members of Journey) was considered the kid brother of the San Francisco scene bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company.

Santana was different: an interesting twist on the blues band format that the Haight-Ashbury community produced. Rooted in Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms, the group’s music rode a flexible wave of congas, drums and sparse bass playing. On top, Santana’s dazzling guitar work was often offset by vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Rolie and drummer Michael Shrieve.

At least sonically, the group was more of a band than strictly Santana’s guitar showpiece. Despite his leadership, it was the balance that gave the group such a variety of approaches. The instruments played off each other. They fused Latin music with rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and the blues

Besides being the best lineup of Santana, this was also the most popular attention that the band ever got.

The band enjoyed a trio of Latin-tinged hits with “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va.” The group’s early records, “Caravanserai,” “Santana III,” and its greatest album, “Abraxas,” went platinum several times over.

But looking back, you have to think that for all the acclaim heaped on “Santana the guitar god,” most of those who sought to follow in his footsteps were drawing more on his band and how his playing fit with them.

It was maybe the equity in the band’s sound — and, as Santana told Rolling Stone magazine, the drug abuse within the band — that created tension.

As the early ’70s progressed, Santana became fixated with the sounds of jazz and fusion. He fell hard for Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and the work of guitarist John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Realizing the gulf between his bandmates and his own musical interests, Santana disbanded that incarnation of the group. Despite the fact that it carried his name, the firing of the group is described in Rolling Stone as a coup.

Though he continued to draw crowds with an ever-changing cast of players from the ’70s through the ’90s, his recorded work moved further from the mainstream and became more free-formed and focused around Santana’s guitar. One writer described it as “searching for the center of the universe” music.

The music wasn’t uncreative (he even won several Grammys over the years, mostly for instrumental music), but the energy was on jamming and spontaneous creation. (Carlos never was much of a traditional or prolific songwriter.)

Though this can be exhilarating for musicians, endless jamming can be numbing for audiences.

As might be expected, Santana’s sales continued to decline over the years despite his popularity in concert.

Without a record deal by the end of the ’90s, “Supernatural” came about when Santana’s former mentor, Clive Davis, offered him a deal at Arista Records. Davis had signed Santana to his first record deal in the late ’60s.

As both Davis and Santana have said publicly, “Supernatural” was an attempt to get his music back on the radio. But in doing so, Santana lost his music.

Looking at and listening to “Supernatural” smacks as equal parts desperation and musical emasculation.

In the first case, the album has Santana jamming with a slew of other artists: Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton, Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, Dave Matthews and Everlast. The overarching idea behind having so many guests is something akin to “one of these songs has got to be a hit.” He almost mimics one of his best songs, “Everybody’s Everything.”

The second point is that after you listen to the record, it sounds like Santana is almost a guest on his own album. Sure, you hear his signature guitar running through each song, and everything has a Latin feel, but the creative thrust behind each song is really determined by the guest artist. Santana goes with the flow.

Maybe the problem with the album is that it’s credited to Santana. To look at it in another way, maybe you could view this as something like a greatest hits or tribute record. But it really isn’t a Santana album. The collaborators deserve as much credit as Carlos.

So what’s the point? It is not to downplay Santana’s considerable talents, his achievements or his Grammy victory. He might have deserved to win some of those awards. But the Grammys (which are hopelessly oblivious to rewarding true artistic merit — but that is another column) are too skewed toward sales figures and hype to really lend credence to the idea that Santana is still musically potent.

To call “Supernatural” a return to form is incorrect. When he sits down to record his next record, Santana might not be able recreate the magic without getting Ricky Martin, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Beck, Shania Twain, Dr. Dre or Mariah Carey to loan him some songs.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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