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Santana - Spirits Dancing In The Flesh CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

2.78 | 47 ratings

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3 stars I jumped aboard the Santana bandwagon the minute I heard their debut album in the summer of '69 and stayed on until fall of '73 when they laid the unconscionable "Welcome" egg on the passengers, revealing themselves as mortal and capable of stupidly tripping on their bellbottoms. While they did make some amends a year later (with the uneven but decent "Barboletta" LP) for me the thrill was gone and I stopped buying their records on blind faith. In fact, it wasn't until a few years ago when I picked up a used vinyl copy of the double disc set from '77, "Moonflower," that I deliberately sampled anything from the group released between the mid 70s up through 99's "Supernatural." That's 11 studio albums from a band I like that I totally ignored for decades (which shows you how much I love and cherish their first four classic records). It's not that I thought all that much less of them; I just chose to spend my music budget elsewhere for 24 years. Yet "Moonflower" turned out to be a pleasant surprise so I thought I'd try my luck once again. Knowing full well it'd still be a crap shoot when it came to picking out one of those LPs I closed my eyes, grabbed at random and brought home "Spirits Dancing in the Flesh" from June of 1990. It's no masterpiece by a long shot but, in comparison to the slap in the face that was "Welcome," it's a gem.

First comes "Let There Be Light" and I admit that their having a gospel choir show up when the curtain raises is not what I expected. That bold move is certainly not bad in itself but it's what one chooses to do with them that counts and, in this case, they serve well as a lead-in to "Spirits Dancing in the Flesh," an invigorating jam where Carlos does what he's best at doing. He dutifully tears the place up with his guitar as the chorale slides in and out while remaining unobtrusive. The lively sparring between him and keyboardist Chester Thompson at the end creates flashy sparks. Their cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman" follows and it's an inoffensive contemporary pop rock rendition that benefits greatly from Carlos' aggressive solo. Alex Ligertwood's vocal is utile but ultimately pedestrian (as always). Next an ominous note drones behind wild animal noises, setting the stage for "It's a Jungle Out There." Anticipation runs high for something ferocious to happen but it never does. Slick synthesizers give this fast-paced song a palpable Morris Day vibe and Carlos shreds convincingly but there's something contrived about it that keeps me from getting involved. "Soweto (African Libre)" is a smooth, flowing instrumental that has enough drive to maintain minimum momentum. The synthesizer and guitar rides are fine but the real standout is Chester's piano lead. It snaps and sizzles with gusto. "Choose" is a slice of funky west coast R&B typical of that era but, as before, it's Carlos' edgy licks that distinguish it from the average rabble.

"Peace on Earth...Mother Earth...Third Stone from the Sun" has all the earmarks of a great idea that fell a little short of achieving its potential. The beginning is from Coltrane and it works well as an extended atmospheric intro but the hard rock number that it segues into lacks conviction. It then evolves into the kind of Latino free-for-all the Santana ensemble so excels at. It's the coda consisting of a snippet of Hendrix's groundbreaking, transcendent theme-for-the-ages that stumps me, though. It seems totally out of context. "Full Moon" is a serene, light jazz piece with a glowing, romantic aura that emphasizes Carlos' gift for constructing melodic phrases without sacrificing his fiery attack. Unfortunately, that's the end of the paved road. An ill-advised remake of the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady" rudely punches a hole in this boat's hull and it starts taking on ballast quickly. Here their attempt to be trendy and modern falls flat due mostly to the poorly performed vocals and the anemic feel manufactured by the tinny electronic drums they employed for the track. I also don't get the point of the inclusion of "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" by Babatunde Olatunji at all. It's nothing more than a revival of the same cut from their first album with some different African lyrics being chanted and that spells cop-out to me. The percussion breakdown featuring the amazing Armando Peraza on congas is cool and all but the song still comes off as cheap filler and that's not acceptable. The record ends with "Goodness and Mercy," a composition by Thompson and Mr. Santana captured live. It begins with some coy interplay between keyboard and guitar and then turns into a showcase for Carlos to strut his impressive stuff. Eventually heavy drums enter to provide some dynamics but, for some reason, the number ends somewhat abruptly without fanfare and leaves a vacuum. Ho hum.

While "Spirits Dancing in the Flesh" isn't the travesty I feared it might be, its mediocrity is probably representative of the ruts that Carlos and Company got too comfortable traveling in during the last quarter of the 20th century. I know that, especially in the Spanish-speaking community, Santana had an incredibly loyal, die-hard fan base that would rather eat raw escargot than to miss his annual tour through their town and the consistent cash flow that enthusiastic throng provided made doing the "same old same old" pretty inviting, I'm sure. The problem was that it also stifled any inclination for them to be adventurous or daring and the result was a whole lot of albums like this one where playing it safe ruled the agenda. Two and a half stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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