Sunday, 8 April 2018

Best musicians I've seen - 4.1: guitarists

Well, I never got to see Hendrix or Clapton, the latter not for the want of trying to get a ticket for the Cream reunion, though I doubt I would favour Clapton over all my other options. Nor did I see Mark Knopfler, another fine guitarist.

But I do have a shortlist and I've been comparing it with Rolling Stone magazine's list of its 100 greatest guitarists published in 2011*. This was an update of an earlier version, having the merit that, instead of the RS editor's choice, it was voted for by a panel including some of the most famous ever guitarists, including Richie Blackmore, Dave Davies, Robbie Kreiger, Brian May, Carlos Santana, Andy Summers and Mick Taylor. Which perhaps explains why all of the above are included.

Nevertheless, I've seen 7 of Rolling Stone's top 25 and 12 of the top 100. Indeed, all of my shortlisted guitarists but one figure in the RS top 100. One of those who does is Carlos Santana, who appears at number 20 in Rolling Stone's list.

Santana were a bit of a cult band when I started at University, based on their eponymous first album, er, Santana. I'd read about Santana saying his band was percussion driven, featuring multiple drummers (usually three). This hadn't made me want to go out of my way to listen to them. Which, youngsters, meant back in those days that you didn't hear them at all. Radio 2 might play Samba Pa Ti and Oye Como Va nowadays but the Beeb didn't play Santana much then. However, hearing Soul Sacrifice off Santana at a student party piqued my interest and the second album Abraxas, one of the classic albums of all time in my estimation, had me sold. Though it wasn't until a couple of albums later, with Caravanserai (also a seriously good album) that the band started getting nominated for awards. And it was more than 2 decades later, in 2000, when they cleaned up with 8 Grammy awards for the album Supernatural and songs on it, including album if the year, record of the year (for Smooth) and best pop and best rock instrumental performances, for El Farrol and The Calling.

Santana is officially a rock-latin american jazz fusion band, but even knowing that I didn't realise just how much the music was based on latin american dance rhythms. It took watching several seasons of Strictly and seeing Santana live rather belatedly in 2013 with, yes, three percussionists (lots of bongos and cymbals, only one full time on a normal drumkit) for me to appreciate how much the samba rhythm in particular permeates the music. With Carlos on lead, a bass player and a keyboards player, percussionists represented half the personnel on stage.

Carlos was, as you would expect, a very fluent player and the marvellous guitar runs on Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va and Samba Pa Ti were done full justice. Though a couple of other things stuck in my memory.

The first was the Mexican, as Santana calls himself (he was born in Mexico, his family moving to San Francisco when he was young) shared some of his cod philosophy with the audience throughout the gig. I say cod because it was all rather simplistic, but "you are not responsible for your parents' baggage", while a rather odd thing for someone in their mid 60s to say to an audience with a similar average age, resonated for me and Mrs H, there having been a lot of baggage left for us to clear, both physical and metaphorical.  One of his other snippets of wisdom was to commend the importance and benefits of what he coyly termed "S - E - X". It made me wonder if he's been saying much the same thing since he started his band in the 1960s, but it did seem curiously apposite for his predominantly grey and balding audience.

Santana actually started out as a street busking band, performing endlessly long jams before graduating to the San Francisco club circuit. It got them a gig at Woodstock which led to a recording contract, though only after Columbia Records convinced the band that they needed to have some structured songs to record rather than jams. And the second point that appealed to me besides Carlos's sublime playing was the way the keyboard player would signal the end of an extemporised instrumental jam section to a song by raising his left arm and then letting it drop. In our own schoolboy "band" the keyboard player did just that and I hadn't seen anyone do it in a live performance for a very long time.

Anyway, Carlos is some player. But he's not in my final shortlist of three.....

(You didn't really think I was going to come clean on my guitarist in one post did you?)



  1. I would have to plump for Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton and Norman Brown Phil.

    1. I'm not familiar with these dudes, Tony. Or I thought I wasn't, as Ritenour was brought in to "beef up" Run Like Hell on Pink Floyd's The Wall and Carlton played lead on Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne from The Royal Scam, one of my favourite tracks of the 1970s, then and now. You will have to play me some of their stuff!