Gregg Rolie Rejoins Santana — Hold the Black Magic

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On the day of Prince’s death last month, television was awash in old interviews, concert clips and videos. During a 1999 chat with Larry King on CNN, the Purple One talked specifically about three of his biggest musical influences: Stevie Wonder, Graham Central Station and Santana.

The next day, founding member, singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie (whose pipes feature on signature hits “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va”) reflected on that connection.

“Prince has told Carlos that Santana was the band for him, and had a lot of influence on his sound. And you can hear it,” Rolie offers. “What’s kind of bizarre is that I heard he went out shopping for music just before his death [at Minneapolis’s Electric Fetus record store], and one of the new albums he bought was Santana IV.”
Wait, hasn’t Santana put out a billion records since their self-titled 1969 debut with the black-and-white psychedelic lion on the cover? Well, yes. But for this project, guitarist/leader Carlos Santana has reassembled most of the Woodstock-era lineup featured on those first three seminal records: Santana, Abraxas and Santana III.

That includes Santana, Rolie, guitarist Neal Schon, drummer Michael Shrieve and percussionist/singer Michael Carabello. Bassist Benny Rietveld and percussionist Karl Perazzo from the current incarnation of Santana fill out the lineup.

So titling the new effort Santana IV is simply a continuation, as if this band of brothers were just picking up 45 years later — though Rolie and Schon would go on to co-found another little group that did okay for itself, Journey. And it seems that Schon was the real kickstarter for this campaign.

“He really pushed for it and Carlos wanted to do it. And when just the five us got together for the first time, we jammed for six or seven hours,” Rolie says. “And we had the same magic between the players, and we knew it was going to be great. And we really played with each other. It was perfectly imperfect”

Rolie says the band worked on more than 40 pieces of music — some fragments, some completed songs, some jams — before settling on the 14 tracks that make up Santana IV. And all were recorded in two or three takes.

It’s a powerful, incredible record that is far better than most people might suspect, combining all the band’s classic sonic elements and Latin influences (“Yambu,” “Caminado,” “Suenos”) on instrumentals (“Fillmore East”); rock epics (“Blues Magic/Echizo,” “Come As You Are”); and more commercial-sounding tunes (first single “Anywhere You Want to Go,” “Shake It”).

Two tracks, “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom in Your Mind,” feature Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers on lead vocals. Rolie says he was happy to cede the mike on the sociopolitically themed tunes.

“He’s a musical icon and I listened to him as a kid. He’s such a gentle man. And he still has the pipes!” Rolie says, adding that Isley joined the Santana IV lineup for a live show that was filmed for an upcoming DVD release.

“Among the band, we have the same sensibility about playing music,” he adds. “The time seems like it never passed.”

Not part of the reunion for various reasons were Jose “Chepito” Areas (timbales/congas/percussion), and Marcus Malone (drums). The latter made national news when he was discovered in late 2013 by a TV reporter living homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He later had an emotional reunion with Santana caught on video.

“Marcus…it just didn’t happen. And Carlos has been playing with Karl for 20 years on timbales,” Rolie offers. Bassist David Brown died in 2000.

As for his most lasting memory of playing Woodstock, where Santana was still relatively unknown, it had more to do with numbers of people than any musical notes.

"We flew in in helicopters because people parked on the highway and you couldn't get in," Rolie recalls. "I looked down on 500,000 people, but it didn't register to me at the time. I had no way to judge what that was. We had played for 30,000 people before, and we treated it like that. We stayed and watched Sly Stone, and then we drove out of there and it took forever! That's when I realized how big it was. And I'm glad we didn't grasp it — we might have gotten stage fright!"

As for the well-worn rock legend that Carlos Santana dropped acid just before the band hit the stage — thinking they weren't going on until later — and thus played the whole set tripping, it's true. Santana even cops to it in his autobiography. But as for his singer/keyboardist, Rolie had no idea.

"I didn't know it. He did seem a little different, though!" Rolie laughs. "And he told me that his guitar seemed like a snake to him, and he just wanted to hold onto it."

So with a great classic band reunited and able to play a rich back catalog with strong new songs, it would seem like a tour would be imminent. However, a full tour isn’t up for discussion until 2017. Carlos Santana has his current band, Schon is now on a massive Journey tour (see below), and Rolie is doing double duty onstage with his own group and in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

“It’s a chess game with all the schedules and making them work. But this lineup will have and will do some more [one-off] shows,” Rolie says. “I think the way we make this work in the future is to do a Santana/Journey tour.”

Concerning his continued employment as an All-Starr, as fellow bandmate Steve Lukather of Toto also told us last year, sometimes Rolie still has to pinch himself that he’s onstage with a friggin’ Beatle.

“It took me two years to not go, “Wow, holy crap, I’m on the same stage as Ringo Starr!’ I mean, the Beatles, everybody wanted to be in that band. And to be on the same stage as the same guy who helped me get started on all this…it’s incredible," Rolie says. “He’s such a good man and good bandleader, and we all get along famously.”

Today, Rolie is a resident of Austin, and enthuses about life in the Lone Star State at his home overlooking Lake Travis. But with touring commitments to three bands (and work on a solo record that was temporarily shelved for Santana IV), he only has one question.

“I wonder…what the hell happened to my retirement!”

Santana IV is available now at all digital and physical retailers. Rolie's former band, Journey, plays the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tomorrow night with special guests the Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

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