A list of “The greatest guitar classics of all time,” as the subtitle for Carlos Santana’s latest CD Guitar Heaven goes, would not be complete without reference to Santana himself – at the very least, to his Abraxas days and such undeniably classic guitar work as Samba pa’ ti, Oye como va or Black Magic Woman. So, there is no question that he’s entitled to offer his reading on such tracks as Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing, Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love or Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. Especially if he’s gonna bring a list of guest singers to the task including the likes of Chris Cornell, Scott Weiland and Joe Cocker, with performers like Yo Yo Ma and The Doors’ Ray Manzarek chipping in. A Guitar Heaven full of sunny skies, apparently… but weather forecasting is an inaccurate science in music as well.
The first question one asks looking at the tracklist is “how will his melodic touch adapt to half the material he wants to cover here?” The second applies to all cover albums: “how close to the originals will he stay, and how much of his own style will he lay down?”
This is Santana, so take it for granted that there will be congas – which is mostly the end of Latin touches.
But this is post-Smooth Santana, with the same producer he worked with in Supernatural, so the (for lack of a better word) bland atmosphere that mellowed his punchy edge of the 70s is there as well, together with a couple of painfully unsuccessful attempts at showing the kids he’s still down with the trends (the super-fast riff on Heartbreaker, the painfully gimmicky rap take on Back in Black).
There are a couple of inspired songs where Santana feels at ease and lets it rip instead of pulling open the gadget bag or trying to replay the original riffs and solos note by note – sometimes it’s a classic groove he solos on (Sunshine of Your Love), sometimes it’s a stretch where his passion shines through, sometimes the guest singer does more than mimic the original performer (Chris Cornell doing a Robert Plant impersonation in Heartbreaker versus Joe Cocker owning Little Wing), sometimes a bold reading shines new light on an old friend (While My Guitar Gently Weeps).
But mostly it’s neither here nor there – an awkward Santana is still a better guitarist than most, but is no match for the fire and passion in his most inspired playing. It’s easy to tell just how out of step he is with some of this material, and that this album was not his original idea but a suggestion from his label.