Collective wisdom runs like this: Santana (the band, the man) progressed from a sensational career launch at Woodstock, through a couple of world-wide hit singles and albums to peak artistically with the “spiritual trilogy” of Caravanserai/Welcome/Borboletta, then blanded out into commercialism and patchy solo releases before hitting the big time (no time bigger) with the label-bailing Supernatural, and since then, well, okay, nothing as great as [your favourite here]. There. Story told.
But let’s have a look at that “commercial” tag first. Caravanserai reached number 8, Welcome 25, Borboletta (a sometimes overlooked gem of an album) 10. Pretty good for artistic statements, right? Amigos, which didn’t concern itself much with spirituality and was therefore seen as a return to basics (and commercialism), reached 10. This is usually the bailing point for most rock fans. It was clear that Santana had given up scaling the artistic peaks and turned to “commercial” music. Which is strange, as his second album of this period, Festival, was by a hair, his lowest-charting yet (at a very creditable 27). Why the change? It’s pretty clear that he couldn’t go on repeating Caravanserai for the rest of his life, and it’s also obvious that live performances would suffer if this less-danceable material was played exclusively. Santana’s bedrock support, income, and reputation has always been based on live performance, since that electrifying first appearance at Woodstock, and the Latin element of his music was mostly geared to getting people on their feet, something that the music of the trilogy – no matter how beautiful – was never designed to do. And there’s the fact that he has always been a Latin musician with a massive Latin following, and he was aware of contemporary Latin music and never forgot his roots (he started out as a boy in 1957, playing the violin in church and busking in a trio called Mr. 50 Cents A Song – interesting to note that his trademark sustain can be traced back to this boyhood instrument, as Jerry Garcia’s almost complete lack of sustain can be foreshadowed in his first instrument, the banjo). So this shift to reflecting the contemporary Latin culture, which he knew would alienate many of his core rock audience, was a pretty brave one.
Festival (the sister album to Amigos) is an album few rock fans care about these days, as are the ones that followed, and it’s their loss. The musicianship is superb, the energy never flagging (except for the ballads, necessary changes of pace for live performance), and if you can forget the lyrics, with their homilies of getting it together, letting the children be free and your sister dance and so forth, a splendid time is guaranteed. Lyrics have always been problematic for Santana, and a general rule is to listen to the sound they make rather than get involved with literary meaning and merit. Their one saving grace – and it’s a big one – is their universal positivity; no matter how banal, they come from a good heart and are never delivered ironically.
A common adjective used to describe many Borboletta-onwards albums is “transitional”, as if they can somehow be dismissed as neither as good as what came before or after, but it’s easy to trace various influences throughout his long career. After Festival, the rock resurfaces, and of course he got slated for reflecting contemporary rock music rather than retreading the Woodstock sound. Santana just can’t win – except with the public, who always turned up at his concerts, no matter what the album was. Moonflower/Inner Secrets/Marathon/Zebop! were all solid sellers (and solid albums) but sales took a significant dip with Beyond Appearances in ’85, a thin-sounding, generic ‘eighties album which convinced nobody. Freedom, a year later, did even worse, although it didn’t deserve to, and Spirits Dancing In The Flesh and Milagro, fine albums doing much to restore his critical credibility, did even worse, barely scraping into the charts. It seemed that whatever Santana had left to say, the world didn’t want to listen. So a seven-year hiatus, the divine intervention of Clive Davis, until the appearance of Supernatural made Santana, once more, a global phenomenon.
If you’ve not yet bothered with Santana’s “lost years” (which in themselves would constitute a very creditable career for any other band), there’s a lot to be enjoyed on its own terms, without constant comparisons to earlier albums. Beyond Appearances is the only one I’d not recommend, and even that’s not clinically awful, just nothing anybody (and I’m sure that includes Carlos) wants from a Santana album.
I haven’t gone into his prolific and very rewarding solo career here (frequently distinguished by name only – everything he does is Santana), nor post-Supernatural. This piece is just an attempt to get those who’ve dismissed a vast body of work to reconsider. These albums can be picked up for next to nothing, but that’s no indication of their worth. For me, Caravanserai remains the Everest of albums, above even Astral Weeks, but there’s much pleasure to be derived from lesser peaks. They all open different views.