The first time you see a performer or a group in action goes a long way towards forming your opinion of them and their work no matter what you see and hear of them anytime after. Well that's the case with me anyway and, whether its fair or not, if they suck the first time I see them its going to take a whale of a performance in the future for me to change my opinion of their music. That first exposure will have made an indelible impression on my memory banks, and somewhere in the back of my mind I'll always carry the awareness of that lousy gig and be waiting for them to repeat it. Than again if they are magnificent the first time, and it will take a lot for me to give up on them.
The first time I saw Santana in action was also the first time I saw the movie Woodstock. It looked like Santana was the first group to go on after the infamous rain storm which had turned Yasgur's farm into a mud bath. In the movie the crowd had started to do their own percussion thing to entertain themselves with people playing on everything from fence posts to beer bottles in order to participate. After a couple minutes of that the movie segued into Carlos and the boys playing "Soul Sacrifice". While I had heard them play the same song on the soundtrack, actually seeing them perform it was completely different experience.
Although both the movie and its soundtrack only have Santana playing the one song, like everyone else who played "The Woodstock Music & Art Festival" they played between forty-five minutes and an hour. Now, for the first time, the whole set Santana played Saturday August 16th 1969 has been released on one recording as part of Legacy Recordings' Santana: The Woodstock Experience. The two CD package also contains a copy of the group's 1969 release, the self-titled Santana, their first recording, and a poster of the group performing at the Woodstock festival.
I have to assume the eight tracks on the Woodstock disc represent the entire set performed by Santana that afternoon after the rainstorm, and the order they appear in on the CD match the original performance order, as it doesn't say different anywhere on the packaging. There's two reasons that's important to me; one it means they basically performed, with the addition of "Fried Neck Bones And Some Home Fries" and the subtraction of "Shades Of Time" and "Treat", their album for the concert, and two, "Soul Sacrifice" hadn't followed directly after the audience's spontaneous percussion performance as the movie implies, as it was the second last song in their set. What happened on screen was the result of creative editing on the part of the film makers, not some shared experience between audience and performers.
While that was a little disappointing to discover it did nothing to diminish the electricity of the band's overall performance on the live recording. For not only was "Soul Sacrafice" as good and exciting as it was the first time I heard it in the movie theatre all those years ago, now that it was placed in its proper context as being part of the band's overall set, it somehow became even more exciting. Santana is one of those bands whose performances are a cumulative thing, with each song building on the momentum and energy created by the one preceding. Like a rising tide the music builds in its intensity until it finally reaches its high water mark leaving the audience feeling like they've experienced something equivalent to a force of nature.
It's not often you have the opportunity to listen to a band doing studio versions and then live version of pretty much the same songs on the same release. This is especially interesting when dealing with a band like Sanatan where everybody from Carlos Santana on lead guitar, the conga and percussion players Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas, drummer Mike Shrieve, bass player Dave Brown, to Gregg Rolie on keyboards (which in those days meant piano and organ) are such gifted musicians they can play extended solos on their respective instruments that are miniature performances unto themselves. The embellishments they each add to a song during a live performance aren't just gilding, they almost take it to a new dimension as they push the material as far as it can go without becoming self indulgent.
Something you have to realize listening to these two discs, especially the live one, is that in 1969 the type of music Santana was playing was something most people hadn't heard before. While today bands like Los Lobos and others have made the mixture of Spanish music, blues, and rock and roll well known, it was Carlos Santana and his band who first popularized it, and it was this concert that started it all. Before they had played Woodstock Santana hadn't been known outside of the San Francisco Bay area and this concert brought their sound east for the first time.
Mike Shrieve's drum solo in "Soul Sacrifice" is now one of those seminal moments in rock and roll history for the impact it had on the audience that day. Michael Lang, co-producer of the Woodstock festival recalls, according to the liner notes, it was that solo that captivated the audience and completed the job of winning them over. While they may have missed some of the subtler nuances of the performance simply because of the size of the audience and the primitive sound system, Shrieve's drumming wasn't something that anybody could miss. While normally I find there's nothing more boring than a rock and roll drum solo, and am ever so grateful that they are now mostly gone the way of the dinasour, the solo he uncorked that concert was like the best of jazz drumming, but tinged with the wild abandon of rock and roll.
When Carlos Santana and the rest of his band strode onto stage on Saturday afternoon on the 16th of August 1969, nobody quite knew what they were going to hear. Unlike them we've had the privilege of being able to listen to Carlos Santana for forty some years now, but you've probably not heard him quite like you'll hear him on the live from Woodstock disc. Of course according to this article in Rolling Stone Magazine he was peaking on mescaline when they went on stage, which might have made some difference. However that, after all, was part of what the era was about too and you can just consider that part of the spice that makes the music so special. The sound quality might not be the best on these live recordings, but that doesn't really do anything to diminish their significance and how the music will make you feel and what you just might experience listening to it.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.