Santana is unable to grab the spotlight on new album Blessings and Miracles
More than 50 years ago, Carlos Santana and his namesake band set Woodstock on fire with the smoldering "Soul Sacrifice." Two songs into the new Blessings And Miracles, the mystically-minded guitarist offers up another Latin-rock jam, "Santana Celebration." The yawning gap between the young, urgent seeker of yesterday and the elder statesman of now can be gleaned from the titles of the two songs: One is all about losing yourself, about the abandonment of ego in the pursuit of a higher calling. The other is about propping the artist up on a pedestal to be venerated as a legend.
With the death last year of "Black Magic Woman" songwriter Peter Green, Santana, 74, may be the last in a the line of musical heroes mining the cosmic consciousness of the 1960s that began with Jimi Hendrix. And there are times when it seems he's transcended human form to become a sentient guitar tone. So the self-aggrandizement of "Santana Celebration" by itself should be a damning indictment of a musician whose brand is deeply enmeshed in the ineffable. (It's no coincidence that Santana's most gargantuanly successful album was called Supernatural.) But the song turns out to be more of a fake-out, given how often the legendary guitarist seems to be the weakest link on his own album.
Take "Move," for example, which reunites Santana with Rob Thomas more than two decades after "Smooth" became utterly inescapable to anyone within broadcast distance of a radio station. Even for those who got sick of that song, "Move" moves, with a toughness in Thomas' voice and a driving groan that makes their latest collaboration lean back. Meanwhile, Santana himself simply winds his way around the singer, filling space. Likewise, a Steve Winwood-sung cover of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" is intriguing enough to wish for a version that keeps Winwood's vocals and loses Santana over-punctuating sweet nothings. And with Living Colour's Corey Glover delivering the album's most powerful vocal, the fiercely spirited "Peace Power" gets by with or without the man whose name is above the title.
Other collaborations fail to catch. Santana and Metallica's Kirk Hammett should be an inspired pairing of two generations of San Francisco six-string royalty, but "America For Sale" is a brainless protest with dull howlings by Mark Osegueda of Death Angel. "She's Fire" brings together rapper G-Eazy and songwriting royalty Diane Warren for a song notable only for being brazenly derivative enough to mash up "Maria Maria" and "Put Your Lights On" while calling the woman in question "so smooth." Country singer Chris Stapleton's "Joy," on the other hand, is merely forgettably unremarkable, making it a profound misuse of Stapleton's considerable presence.
But there are a few signs of life throughout, such as "Breathing Underwater," featuring dreamy vocals from daughter Stella Santana, and "Angel Choir/All Together," which features the late Chick Corea and runs closer to Latin jazz than rock. And while the fierce rhythm of "Mother Yes" sounds so much like Hendrix that you'd swear it was Lenny Kravitz, there's that classic tone again, unmistakably Santana.
Even so, the parade of guests that turns his latest collaborative album (he dropped one in 2017, with the Isley Brothers) into a semi-cynical ploy to reach every audience demographic at once does its darnedest to sideline the man who's supposed to be the star. That Santana can still impose his stamp on a solid handful of tracks is absolutely worth celebrating. That he's unable to grab the spotlight on the rest of Blessings and Miracles offers a hint of what he's sacrificed along the way. Grade: C