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Music Review: Santana – Live at the Fillmore ’68

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After their legendary performance at Woodstock in the late summer of 1969, and their blistering self titled debut album, Santana would skyrocket to much deserved stardom and cement a place in rock history. But here, in the warm sounding Fillmore West in December of 1968, we get a very young and hungry Santana trying to find their way. The results couldn’t be more spectacular.

The first thing that knocks me over about this set is the sound, which is absolutely superb. Rich and warm, the sound captured that night in the Fillmore West is immaculately recorded and the stereo separation between the instruments, the percussion in particular, is stunning. Any early Santana fan should thank the stars that someone, somewhere, had the good sense to hit the record button as this is going to be one fantastic night of music (it sounds especially nice in headphones).

First out of the gate is a pulsating version of “Jingo” that seems to contain even more liquid fire than the later studio version found on their debut album. You can hear the percussion trickle in as the bass picks up the back beat and lays a solid foundation for Carlos to soar in with his psychedelic leads. The band grooves along and swings nicely without a care in the world and the polite West coast crowd is highly appreciative.

“Jingo,” with its constant pulsing rhythm, really sets the tone for the rest of the set which focuses mostly on hypnotic grooves and almost meditative song structures. The songs are all stretched as far as they can go and the band gets deep into the cut whenever they can. This usually leads to some excellent percussion breaks with congas and bass throwing the stage afire amidst the swashing leads of organist and pianist Greg Rolie. The band’s ability to alter all perception of what music is supposed to be, especially back in 1968, is astounding.

Speaking of Rolie, he is on fire throughout and, as I mentioned in my review of Tanglewood 1970, he almost steals the entire show away from Carlos. Where some of Carlos’ solos sound restrained and somewhat safe, Rolie is completely unhinged, setting his Hammond B3 organ ablaze with a fury. Not that Carlos isn’t bringing some amazing leads to the table, he is, it’s just that whenever Rolie comes on my ears prick up and I find myself studying the playing just a little more. Of course I have been on a B3 kick lately. Special mention needs to be made here of both Rolie’s and Carlos’ spectacular performances on “Treat,” the two musicians locking together beautifully in the late night atmosphere of the jam.

One of the truly exciting things about hearing these ’68 sets are all the great early and rare gems the band throws out. Throughout the discs we are treated to rarities such as the always mysterious, late night jazz tinged “Fried Neckbones,” the San Francisco styled funk of “Chunk A Funk,” and the great instrumental “Conquistadore Rides Again,” where Rolie and Carlos again mesh musically as if they had been playing together for decades. There is also an early version of “Persuasion” that features a blistering intro played in the San Francisco acid rock style but with a nice touch of Santana styled flavor.

We are also treated to a very rare 30 minute version of “Freeway” which may just be the most hypnotic song on here full of long drum solos, bass solos, and any other solo you can think of (I will admit that the actual drum solo is a bit tame, but remember that spastic drummer Michael Shrieve, featured in the 1969 Woodstock performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” has yet to join the band). Still, it is one amazing performance by all with Carlos bringing some particularly fiery guitar leads into the mix throughout the duration of the jam.

Santana Live at the Fillmore ’68 has been a favorite of mine for years and is highly recommended for any Santana fan. I can also recommend it for any fan of percussion heavy music in general as it is wholly satisfying and far from the watered down Santana of later years. The hypnotic, mesmerizing grooves and pulsing rhythms are sure to keep anyone grooving along throughout the night and there is much to be found deep within the musical layers.

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