It’s curious how much of Carlos Santana’s near 60-year career has been quietly devoted to accommodating his inability to sing. Permanent Santana vocalists came and went, but by 1992’s disastrous Milagro, the game seemed to be up for a guitarist without any clear plan to move forwards.
Enter mogul Clive Davis, who hit upon the notion that Santana’s majestic, distinctive guitar – there really is nobody quite like him – could underpin albums featuring a smorgasbord of singers, some well-known, some not, and rebuild his career. The result was 1999’s Supernatural. It went platinum in the US… 15 times.
The new approach was not conducive to touring and Santana tried to wriggle out of it on albums such as the Rick Rubin-produced Africa Speaks, but sales speak for themselves, hence Blessings And Miracles – his first collaborations set since 2014’s Corazon. It features a stellar cast, including Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas on the delicious Move, which resembles Supernatural’s breakthrough, Thomas-sung Smooth in more than name.
The blessing and curse of the master guitarist and carefully selected guest singer formula is that it works. The heaviest tracks of a surprisingly rocking outing find Santana sounding more energised than he has in years.
America For Sale features Death Angel singer Marc Osegueda growling over a ferocious guitar dual between Santana and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, while Living Colour’s Corey Glover whips up a tsunami of fury on Peace Power (or ‘black power’ as he sings), but Santana matches him note for thrilling note.
Elsewhere, there’s new life breathed into, of all things, A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Steve Winwood offers a gloriously understated white-soul vocal reminiscent of Higher Love, while Santana’s guitar pyrotechnics sizzle. Supernatural’s Maria Maria showed Santana’s guitar enhances hip-hop, and here She’s Fire repeats the trick with the golden-throated G-Eazy.
Of the instrumentals, Santana Celebration is a blistering romp; Song For Cindy (as in Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos’s drummer wife) is Albatross in excelsis, while Chick Corea (who died in February) and Corea’s wife Gayle bring jazz fusion intricacy to Angel Choir/All Together.
The shock of the new helped Supernatural elevate Santana to a new level. Much as though the Carlos Santana who made Abraxas all those years ago might chafe at the very suggestion, collaboration with outside singers has turned out to be what he does best.
If only he could sing, though…