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.