Music Review: Santana, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time

Sometime in the summer of 1999, I popped Santana’s Supernatural into the CD player in one of our vehicles. From the back seat, I heard one of my kids (aged 8 to 13) ask in the combination disdainful/incredulous tone only kids can achieve, “Since when did you start listening to Santana?” They were just a little taken aback when I informed them that, as a matter of fact, I’d been listening to Santana for about 30 years.

Perhaps because I’m that old, I view the albums Santana released from 1970 through 1974 as among the best of the band’s and Carlos Santana’s own lengthy career. In fact, some of the lesser known albums from that period, particularly Caravanserai and Borboletta are among my favorites. Yet when you look at career fluctuations, Santana seems to have cycles of 10-12 years. The band’s latest release, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, may be marking the end of one of those cycles, one it appears he may have used up as the latest vehicle to success.

Santana landed seven albums in the top 10 between 1969 and 1981. In the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, though, the band and the guitarist gradually disappeared from the charts with an accompanying decline in sales. Fans like me would pick up occasional LPs that tended to reflect his Latin-influenced version of jazz-rock fusion. That changed dramatically in 1999, when Santana hooked up again with Clive Davis, who originally signed the band to Columbia Records, and released Supernatural. The album featured contemporary vocalists performing with Santana on a variety of songs written by him and the artists. The album not only reached number one, it was the first to win a Grammy. In fact, not only did Supernatural win Record of the Year, it received a record-tying eight Grammy Awards. Santana used a similar formula on his ensuing two releases by again inviting contemporary vocalists as guest artists.

He and Davis invoke that formula again with Guitar Heaven but while the vocalists are largely contemporary, the songs are not. These are classics to many older listeners. Eight of the 12 cuts come from the period in which Santana had great popular success, 1967 to 1972. The oldest is Willie Dixon’s 1961 “I Ain’t Superstitious” (with Jonny Lang on lead vocals but, interestingly, apparently not playing guitar on the track). The other songs come from 1979 (Van Halen’s “Dance The Night Away”), 1980 (AC/DC’s “Back In Black”) and 1983 (Def Leppard’s “Photograph”).

While the songs are familiar to listeners, Guitar Heaven opens in a somewhat interesting fashion. If a listener were blindfolded, it is unlikely they would identify the band as Santana on the first cut, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” With Chris Cornell on vocals, only a slightly more musical yet esoteric approach to the song’s break distinguishes it from the original or another cover version. In fact, it is not until about halfway through the second cut, the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t Your Hear Me Knocking,” that a listener would really catch the percussive rhythm that marks Santana bands and the signature Carlos Santana guitar licks. While Scott Weiland’s vocals are well done and the tune is largely true to form, it is only it is bathed in the distinctive Santana sound that it really grabs a person’s attention.

The percussion, the Latinesque feel and Santana’s guitar runs are present on much of the rest of the album and, for example, give “Sunshine Of Your Love” a different style. “Sunshine” also features Rob Thomas, the vocalist on the Grammy Award-winning single, “Smooth,” from Supernatural. “Sunshine” and, more particularly, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are the tunes that most seem to differ feel from the originals. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” opens with Yo-Yo Ma on cello and a harpsichord-sounding keyboard. The first part of the song leans more toward acoustic and India.Arie’s vocals imbue it with a more with a more serious and soulful tone than most other versions.

An effort is made to transform “Back In Black” but laying Nas’ rap vocals on top of a heavy rock guitar style. Yet with both it and “Photograph” (with American Idol‘s Chris Daughtry on vocals), the band never seems to generate any ownership interest. In fact, that may be the ultimate failing of Guitar Heaven. These are songs guitarists, particularly great ones, can invest themselves in. While Santana’s guitar work is top-notch, too much of the album sounds like he is indulging in having guest vocalists join him on classics that are distinguished from the originals, if at all, by the band’s Latin intonations and the guitarist’s stylings. Thus, by the time we get to Papa Roach’s lead vocalist doing “Bang A Gong” or Joe Cocker singing “Little Wing” the allure has worn thin. It is really only wanting to hear the guitar solos, few of which are extended ones, that maintains much interest. (Although it is a wonderful touch to have Ray Manzarek play organ on “Riders On The Storm,” something which gives it greater undertones of the original.)

For those who like to hear contemporary singers with Santana, Guitar Heaven may provide them with some classic rock guitar “standards.” Longtime Santana fans like myself certainly are comfortably familiar with the songs and appreciate Santana’s inimitable guitar style. We, though, don’t need a different singer on each cut to make us appreciate that style or the band’s overall sound. More important, fans in either camp may prefer to hear the Santana style in original music rather than a collection of covers.

Forget the hearse ’cause I’ll never die
I got nine lives

“Back In Black”

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