Posts Tagged ‘Carlos Santana’

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

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Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

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Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

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Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

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Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

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Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

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Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

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Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

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Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

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Like both the Blues and modern Jazz before it, the genre of Blues-Rock found its perfect expression in the early 1970’s. Heavied up by British rockers such as Cream’s Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the hyperkinetic Jeff Beck, the highly innovative music of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon paved the way for Heavy Metal and all forms of Hard Rock (including, whether they like it or not, Punk Rock).

And, like both the Blues and modern Jazz, Blues-Rock has its evangelists – those artists who, through single-mindedness or outright religious zeal, feel it is their mission to bring the Righteous Word to their hungry flock. US guitar classicist, Joe Bonamassa travels the world, missionary-like, wielding his Les Paul like a fiery cross, his blazing sermons lighting up congregations at all points of the compass.

 

 

 

On October 5, Bonamassa’s church was Sydney’s State Theatre, as gaudily rococo a house of worship as there ever has been. After a wonderful and too-short warm-up by the Wizard of Katoomba, Claude Hay (his one-man band trip would be mere sleight-of-hand if not for his warm and entirely-engaging musicality), Bonamassa sat down with a stool and an acoustic guitar and we were his.

Joined by drummer Tal Bergman on conga set, he took us through covers of Bad Company’s ‘Seagull’ and originals such as the title track to his last album ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’. The acoustic set concluded with some jaw-dropping bluegrass flash which would have shook every guitar player in the audience (and there were many – later in the set Joe B asked us to identify ourselves and a forest of callus-fingered hands shot into the air).

But as sweet and earthy as the acoustic set was, we had come for the Power and the Glory, and when Bonamassa plugged his (signature, no less) Les Paul into an unholy trinity of 100w Marshall amps it was Heaven, of a sort.

Playing through the menacing Zep-blues of ‘Slow Train’ and the funk-noir of the title track to 2011’s excellent ‘Dust Bowl’, Bonamassa delivered the sermon we had heard so many times before, and would rush to hear again for many years to come.

Bonamassa covered all the bases – the gorgeous Gary Moore cover, ‘Midnight Blues’, which showed the subtle, multi-coloured blues voice behind the heavy rocker, and brought to mind the spiritual genius Peter Green, an influence on Gary Moore and Carlos Santana; the worldly Jeff Beck group blues ‘Blues Deluxe’ which featured his vocal, completely underrated and over-shadowed by his guitar-playing, but, like SRV, an integral part of his appeal; the delicious ‘Sloe Gin’, Tim Curry’s boozer-poem and a JB live staple since his 2007 album of the same name.

Bonamassa’s take on Mose Allison’s wry ‘Young Man Blues’ (via The Who) took his road-toughened band into guitar jam territory – with bass player Carmine Rojas trading some toe-to-toe riffage with JB. Electrifying shit, whichever way you slice it.

But it was not all tooth-and-claw blues and spitting Les Paul magma; Bonamassa can be a truly beautiful player, easily putting aside the histrionics and flash for sweet and soulful lines, making his instrument truly ‘sing’ with all the nuance and warmth that that suggests. The long, mountain-misty intro to ‘Mountain Time’, accompanied only by the keyboard strings of Sydney’s own (and JB touring stalwart) Rick Mellick brought to mind Jeff Beck’s more cosmic flights and took us all higher in every sense.

What, of course makes Joe Bonamassa so exciting is that he is part of the long line of electric guitar players – Hendrix, Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore – who revel in making a great big guitar noise. The encore of ZZ Top’s ‘Just Got Paid’ mixed in all sorts of big fun rock guitar, from its ‘Ain’t Superstitious’ (Jeff Beck) intro to snatches of Billy Cobham’s ‘Stratus’ (a tip of the hat to Tommy Bolin) and huge chunks of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’.

To those who wanted a rock guitar masterclass, they got it; to those who wanted unadulterated rock par excellence, they got it; for those (such as your correspondent) who wanted a window into an era when the guitar ruled the known world, they got it. Joe Bonasmassa cannot be beaten, whichever rules he plays under.

 

Photo by John Snelson/Get Shot Magazine

 

Published October 2012 on liveguide.com.au

 

 

Carlos Santana, latin-rock shaman and one of rock’s most elegantly passionate guitarists, is back. Or so it appears from his latest – and 36th! – album, Shape Shifter.

Santana has spent the last few years in a creative hole, resorting to putting out an album of rock guitar classics – 2010’s Guitar Heaven – which, to old and new fans alike was the nadir of his recent output. Since his 1999 smash, Supernatural – which, due to a guest list of contemporary stars such as Lauren Hill and Rob Thomas, won him a whole new raft of fans (Supernatural went 15 times platinum and won 9 Grammys) – Santana has gradually taken on a Bob Marley-like saintliness, in direct proportion to the decline in his music. Of course there have been flashes of the old “spiritual orgasm” in Carlos’ playing, but they have too often all but been buried in the dross.

Shape Shifter is a welcome departure – oddly a departure back into what Santana does best: jamming over the top of jazz inflected funk and world-music (largely Afro-Cuban) grooves. Only one of the 13 tracks is a vocal, so Carlos is free to blow – rather than inject blues-style call-and-response lines in between Rob Thomas’s crooning – and blow he does.

As ever, his playing is split between sweetly lyrical blues and frenzied sky-high howling. His guitar tone is as phat and warm as ever – on strings led ballad ‘Dom’ his tone seems almost overwhelmingly so, like cables of honey pouring from the speakers. Smooth jazz grooves such as ‘Angelica Faith’ recall the late 70s output where he and The Santana Band were listening more to John Coltrane than AM Rock.

‘Nomad’ is the wake-up – heavy heavy rock flavours with his solo biting and scratching its way into Jimi Hendrix territory (although Santana was always the cool blue moon to Hendrix’s thousand burning suns). The title track, ‘Shape Shifter’ opens the album with some serious Latin heat after a Flamenco intro, intermingled with Native American chants (the album is dedicated to Native Americans).

Some of these Spanish interludes and textures – such as the sole vocal track ‘Eres La Luz’ –  can veer a little too close to library ‘world’ music at times, but they are almost always saved by the quiet (and not so quiet) fire of Santana’s superb band (when has Carlos ever had anything but?).

Raul Rekow on conga, like the 70s stalwart, Armando Peraza before him, is the heartbeat of the band. Rekow has been with Santana’s band – bar a 2 year hiatus – since 1976. His percussion break with percussionist Karl Perazzo, is a sunsplash of percussive joy. The band also features the almost supernatural drummer, Dennis Chambers and keyboard veteran Chester Thompson. It is these players’ knowledge and respect for the past and present state of Latin music that allows them to fly. And on Shape Shifter, unencumbered by more pedestrian pop beats, they put big wings under Santana.

And there is a sense of breaking shackles, of – well – freedom on this album. Santana’s music, based as it originally was in the flower power jams of his native San Francisco, has always been about freedom and openness. Maybe the sense of positivity is deeper than that. Speaking to the US Indigenous radio show “Native America Calling”, Santana said he wanted to make this record because “everything in this year of 2012 points to the peak of fear… we need to connect our youngsters back to nature; they are so confused and fragmented…”. Sure, it is the idealistic flower child of San Franciso speaking, but as even that bitter punk Elvis Costello sang –  “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net