Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Album: FESTIVAL and MOONFLOWER
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
I’ve enjoyed Santana’s music since high school. I marveled over their unique Latin-rock sound on the handful of songs from their late-‘60s/early-‘70s heyday still being played regularly on rock radio stations a decade later, as well as their fiery percussion-heavy performance at the original Woodstock festival in 1969, and became a big fan by my early 20s. I saw them in concert multiple times throughout the ‘90s during a period when their commercial fortunes had dwindled, but their live performances were as inspiring as ever, with the brilliant, singular guitar wizardry of Carlos Santana always front & center. For such an important artist in my life, I haven’t written about them here very much, but I suppose that’s not surprising considering the main focus of this blog has been the lesser-played artists in my collection. I did, however, discuss them twice before, in the first post about My Gateway Compilations and in Part 4 of the Great Out Of The Gate series on my favorite debut albums. Please check out those posts if you missed them the first time, since they showcase how important Santana has been to me for 3+ decades. Beginning with their groundbreaking debut they scored multiple Top 20 albums, including a handful of chart-toppers, and even without radio hits or a consistent lineup they still managed to sell millions of records while constantly challenging their fan base with new sounds & sonic textures. In 1977, nearly a decade into their recording career, Santana released two immensely enjoyable albums. The second of these found them back in multi-platinum territory, an accomplishment they wouldn’t achieve again for 20+ years.
Festival essentially marked the beginning of a new phase in Santana’s career, with a revamped lineup that only included one carryover (keyboard/synth man Tom Coster) and marked the first appearance of longtime Santana percussionist Raul Rekow, who always appeared to be the happiest man in the world whenever he was performing. It’s also notable for the vocal contributions of The Waters Family (siblings Oren, Maxine & Julia) and several other singers, so the album has more of a group-vocal feel rather than featuring a distinctive front-person. I’m far from an expert on Latin music but I can hear more traditional Latin sounds on this album than ever before (rather than the Latin-rock-jazz hybrid they were known for), as well as a big soul and R&B influence, which I might not have enjoyed at the time but I appreciate now. Things get off to a rousing start with a three song suite, “Carnaval/Let The Children Play/Jugando,” which moves from the sound of a Carnival Festival (with a lovely synth-flute melody) to a more deliberate groove (featuring searing lead guitar, super smooth harmonies, a mix of English & Spanish lyrics and wonderful organ and guitar solos) and closes with a pulsing Latin-tinged instrumental with fluid guitar & synth lines. “Try A Little Harder” could be a War song, with a great funky beat (love those double cowbell hits), the repeated “Try a little harder now” refrain & Carlos mimicking the melody on guitar. “Verão Vermelho” is a cover of a 1970 Elis Regina song, highlighted by flamenco guitar in the intro & outro, lots of impressive & expressive acoustic guitar and captivating wordless vocals as Carlos mirrors the melody. With a little tweaking, “Let The Music Set You Free” could have been a disco hit. As is it’s very danceable, with a peppy groove, chugging guitar & Hammond organ washes and the song’s title repeated with biting guitar interjections. The introspective “Revelations” shifts from sparse piano, electric guitar & strings to a Bolero drum rhythm as Carlos solos on top, slowly building in intensity with additional percussion and call-and-response between guitar & synth. Other than Carlos’ inimitable guitar sound, album closer “María Caracóles” is as far from rock music as you can get. Instead, they wrap things up with a traditional-sounding percussive Latin song with a fantastic horn arrangement & chorus vocals (in Spanish). Festival isn’t quite a classic but I like it a lot, and it led directly to one of my favorite Santana albums.
Moonflower is a 16-track double album with 8 new studio recordings and 8 live performances (5 of those songs appeared on the previous 2 albums). It’s also noteworthy for introducing several musicians who would stay with the band for at least another few years: drummer Graham Lear, lead singer Greg Walker and bassist David Margen. Of the studio tracks, their brilliant re-working of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is certainly a highlight, returning them to the Top 40 for the first time in 5 years. “I’ll Be Waiting” is a super catchy soul/pop tune that reminds me of The Spinners. After an atmospheric piano intro, “Zulu” morphs from a choppy jazz-fusion rhythm (a la early Return To Forever) to a more danceable groove. The beautiful instrumental “Flor d’Luna (Moonflower)” has a slinky, jazzy Latin rhythm with a deeper guitar tone (possibly a hollow-body?). Bookended by quiet synth-and-piano soul/R&B, “Transcendance” showcases some blistering lead guitar on a percussive jazz-fusion backdrop. They also enter Donny Hathaway territory with the jazz/soul/blues hybrid “Dawn/Go Within.” The live tracks are all prime Santana. I especially love the punchier rendition of “Carnaval/Let The Children Play/Jugando” from the previous album, especially the transition between the first two songs when Carlos’ guitar cuts through. Although Walker’s vocals aren’t as distinctive as original singer (and Journey co-founder) Gregg Rolie, he does a fine job on an upbeat version of “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” and he really shines on “Dance Sister Dance,” one of my favorites from 1976’s Amigos. “Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)” is a stunning instrumental, even if it’s not quite as definitive as the version on the Viva Santana compilation. Lear and the percussion section shine on “Soul Sacrifice/Head, Hands & Feet,” a 14-minute reprisal of the song that made them legends at Woodstock along with an extended drum solo. Moonflower closes with two classic Santana instrumentals joined together, “Savor/Toussaint L’Overture.” It’s brilliantly played, especially by percussionists Raul Rekow and José “Chepito” Areas. There might be a handful of Santana albums that are slightly more essential, but Moonflower would still be an ideal introduction for the uninitiated. The fact that the studio & live recordings are intermingled makes the album flow a lot better than if they were on separate discs.