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

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Not only has Carlos Santana had a lengthy career, he’s displayed his talents with a wide range of styles, both solo and with the eponymous band that’s had dozens of players over the years. The range is about as wide as the fluctuations in career. Particularly in terms of popularity and commercial success, 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’s first album was released the same month the band appeared at Woodstock. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Woodstock movie appeared between it and the band’s second release, which, along with the band’s third album, went to number one. Undoubtedly, the quality of the Latin-infused rock and Carlos Santana’s signature guitar style were the true driving force behind the band’s popularity. While four Santana LPs hit the top 10 between then and 1981, in the 1980s and 1990s he and the band gradually disappeared from the charts with an accompanying decline in sales.

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 of his albums to win a Grammy. In fact, not only did Supernatural win Record of the Year, it received a record-tying eight Grammy Awards. Santana also invited many contemporary vocalists as guest artists on his ensuing two releases.

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 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 Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach 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.

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About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.
  • Ben

    Never mind the haters, this album is first and foremost FUN. Despite the mixing leaving a bit to be desired (gotta agree, movie sountrack-ish), I keep finding myself cranking it up in the car and envisioning myself onstage with the band. Had they have recorded this as a live gig, the album probably would be going down in history as a must-have.

    Regardless, the first three tracks rock pretty damn hard, especially “sunshine” – wow, this has become my favourite version of the Cream classic. “While my Guitar Gently Weeps” is nice enough but a bit tepid after the between-the-eyes style of the first three tracks. The outro solo is expertly performed but you find yourself wishing for it to get dirtier – a bit more into Eddie Hazel territory and it would be a legend cut.

    “Photograph” is pure 80’s FM fodder. Didn’t do anything for me I don’t get from the original – even the reverb on the lead vocals is identical. Not sure why they bothered with this one…..

    “Back In Black” works well, though it’s difficult for any serious AC/DC fan to accept any cover, no matter how much you want it to work. The solos are awesome, the rest falls into the soundtrack-ish trap.

    “Riders” vocals just dont work for me – pity, becaus the band works it well.

    “Smoke on the water” rocks, but once again the production lets it down. I started getting excited when I heard the raw background buzzing of the overdriven tube amps in the background, but Shaddix’s triple-tracked vocals shot it back down into the soundtrack-y basket.

    “Dance the Night Away” – as with Photograph, why? Not much new here. Carlos could have added much more of his signature style to so many other VH classics – “Mean Streets” would have been my personal pick for him. Even “Hot for Teacher” would have been fun with a latin edge, but “Dance The Night?”

    Of the remaining cuts, “I ain’t superstitious” works the best, with the band being temporarily possessed by the ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble from the “Soul to Soul” era.

    Look, you could cut it to bits for whatever reasons you want, but at the end of the day it remains very listenable and loads of fun. Keep it on the iPod for long drives & you’ll be greatful.

  • colyn townsend

    Carlos is not the guitarist he used to be back in the day when he mentored Neal Schon who ironically outplayed Carlos on the 3rd and 4th Santana and the live album with Buddy Miles. Except for a few instances Carlos has not got better as a guitarist with age. His solos are boring and predictable, they dont hold your attention and you dont want to keep playing them over and over. I hope he quits before he gets like Peter Green. I have every album he has played on. Yup including when he played with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Im still a fan but a dissapointed one. Guitar Heaven is a small move in a better direction as far as his playing goes but its a long way off the real stuff.

  • Gerry

    On the surface this seemed like a great idea so I bought it. What disappoints me most is the amount of compression on this disk and the resulting lack of dynamics. Also, the “wall of sound” mixing which masked the guitar work that was expected in the forfront for these selections.

  • Phil

    This album is great. You all just dont get it at all

  • Tim

    I agree, Carl. It’s the guitar solos that you end up listening to, not the vocalists.

  • Carl Mancuso

    Tim: Don’t you think this cd would have been a lot better as an instrumental album? Carlos could have spent time imposing more of his style on the songs instead of having to worry about how the singers would mesh with the material. Also, Clive Davis picked the singers, so that would have lessened his influence. Davis just picks contemporary singers to sell cds, not necessarily always with the full intention of letting Santana pursue his own artistic vision.