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Non-Prog Concert Reviews

Gregg Rolie Band

Live in Denver, Colorado – September, 2010

Review by Scott Montgomery

Want to experience the magic (and not just “supernatural”) feel of Santana these days?  Check out the Gregg Rolie Band!  You owe it to yourself.  This has got to be one of the best live bands on the circuit. During their incendiary 90-minute set, Mr. Rolie and company demonstrated a peerless capacity to bring the classic original Santana sound to life.  It did not sound like a revival of something past, as much as a continued adventure of a classic vibe and sound.  The Gregg Rolie Band largely reproduces the inimitable sound of Santana’s early incarnation, as captured on the first three albums (1969-1971), even more authentically than the band called “Santana” has been doing for decades.  If one ever wondered how there could be “Santana” without Carlos Santana, the Gregg Rolie Band provides a definitive answer of “yes.”  The Gregg Rolie Band illustrates just how much of that original sound was due to Rolie’s central role in the band’s formulation and sound. That voice – the voice of Santana – is as much a key component of the “authentic” Santana sound as even Carlos Santana’s signature guitar virtuosity.  But it is also the mighty Hammond under the able fingers of Mr. Rolie that helped shape the Santana sound.  Indeed, as Carlos Santana has noted, he and Rolie were the nucleus of the original Santana band.  Hence, Rolie’s key role as an architect of the “Santana sound” – a role that is evidently manifest in the Gregg Rolie Band.

With a line-up that closely approximates that of the original Santana band, the Gregg Rolie Band sounds so close as to defy distinction by any but the most attentive.  Though slight stylistic divergence is notable, particularly in the guitaristry of Kurt Griffey, even this is close to early Santana.  Sounding more like Neal Schon than Carlos Santana, Griffey’s magnificent guitar solos bring the feel toward the superb (but sadly short-lived) Abraxas Pool, or perhaps the 1971 Santana incarnation with Carlos Santana sitting out.  (Schon joined the band in 1971 and thus there is a historic sensibility even in the guitar stylings of Griffey).  None of this is to imply that Griffey is derivative.  Far from it – he plays with great fire – adding blistering runs, soaring accents, and biting phrases to the groove – very much in the Santana school, but with a more aggressive (slightly post-metal) attack.  Indeed, it is the distinct quality of Griffey’s phrasing that gives the Gregg Rolie Band a degree of newness that adds spice to the deliciously familiar feel of the band’s sound.

Rolie’s soulful organ solos repeatedly demonstrate the fact that he is one of rock’s great organ players – never over-the-top, never too much – always tasteful, soulful, and serving the song rather than his own ego as he weaves from rich swelling support work to dynamic, melodic soloing.  The consummate team-player (and one of the most genuinely nice people in Rock and Roll), Rolie possesses a generosity and grace in his playing – allowing the rest of the band to shine - and shine they do!  To a man, this group is exceptional – both in terms of individual musical chops and collective performance.  This is a band of superb musicians who clearly play for the love of the music.  No jive, no BS – just great playing in the service of the material.  In many ways it is this very band ethos that gives the Gregg Rolie Band the mighty collective chemistry that also distinguished the original Santana – very much a band, rather than a solo artist. 

Most of the musicians can also be heard on the recent (2009) Rain Dance CD – a magnificent set that showcases the band’s electric live performance.  As on this release, the band stayed relatively close to the original Santana arrangements, while extending and stretching them with electrifying soloing that also echoed the intensity of early Santana performances.  As such, the songs had both the original sound and the expansive original feel of early Santana concerts.

After a brief, crescendo-like opening statement, a familiar timbale roll led to the infectious vamp of “Evil Ways” as the band launched into the musical legacy of Rolie and company.  In keeping with the original Santana feel, the songs blended together, as the ending of “Evil Ways” led immediately to the distinct conga beat that led the band into the infectious jungle rhythm of “Jingo.”  This in turn led right into “Goin’ Home” – a more recent song by the standards of the band’s repertoire, having appeared on the superb Abraxas Pool album of 1997 and Rolie’s magnificent 2001 release Roots.  What is so striking about the band is the way in which the newer songs fit seamlessly with the early Santana material.  While this is perhaps most pronounced in Rolie’s distinct, smoky vocals and Hammond mastery, the instrumentation and songwriting are also perfectly in accord with “that sound.”


Lloyd Raymond
 
Lloyd Raymond
   

After introducing the band, Rolie announced that they would play songs from the first three Santana albums (on which Rolie’s contributions were central) and some newer songs.  As though making good on this enticing promise, Rolie introduced another favorite – “No One To Depend On” from Santana’s third album.  Ripping through this early hit (written by Rolie, with Michael Carabello and Coke Escovedo), the band positively channeled the spirit of the original 1971 rendition.  But, the group does not sound like a “greatest hits revue band.”  Rather, this is a working band that is keeping the flame alive.  Demonstrating a sensibility that combines the familiar sound with the sense of excitement and exploration that marked the original Santana, the band dropped seamlessly into a soulful, inspired rendition of the blues classic “As The Years Go Passing By.”  Though most closely associated with late great blues master Albert King, the song was in fact a staple of the very earliest Santana repertoire (as evidenced on the 1997 Santana Live at the Fillmore ’68 release).  Rolie’s voice and organ figures gave a rich bluesy texture above which Griffey’s guitar soared in mellifluously biting blues lines.  Alternately sultry and potent, Rolie’s inimitable vocal delivery was simultaneously plaintive and urgent.  One would need a chainsaw to cut through the deep soulful layers of this rendition.  Interpolating the signature instrumental coda of the Beatle’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” highlighted by Rolie’s swirling psychedelic calliope organ, the band introduced nice twists and turns into the older songs.  Keeping the audience on its feet (literally), the band morphed the song into a rollicking samba beat for an extended instrumental workout beginning with a rich organ solo from Rolie, followed by a fine Latin-tinged keyboard solo by Wally Minko, and on to yet another blistering solo from guitar maestro Griffey.  All of this was driven by the magnificent propulsion of the monstrous rhythm section of Ron Wisko (drums), Gary Brown (bass), Charlie Barrero (congas), and Adrian Areas (timbales – and son of original Santana timballero Chepito Areas).  The band is so tightly fused that the solos come across less as solos than melodic overpinnings playing as parts of a propulsive, polyrhythmic whole.  Dropping back to a reprise of the Beatles’ riff, the band brought this epic 17-minute ride to a big conclusion.  For many bands, this would constitute a perfect grand finale, but the Gregg Rolie Band was just getting going.  …and the crowd was eating it up, resting in the palm of the band’s collective musical hand.

Turning to newer material, they launched into the Rolie-penned “Bailamos El Son” – a superb vintage-sounding tune that closes the Rain Dance CD.  Unless one were thoroughly familiar with the totality of the early Santana repertoire, this would go unnoticed as a new song, as it is so perfectly in keeping with the early Santana.  And who wasn’t dancing to this one?  A brand-new song, “Anyway You Want To Go,” began with a groove redolent of “Oye Como Va” accented by tasteful vibe-like keyboard playing by Minko, which, via a timbale roll, led into a guitar solo reminiscent of the instrumental turn-around in the same Santana song.  Rolie’s vocals and a catchy, simple hook gave this number a feel that would belong on any of the early Santana albums.  Yet, somehow it did not sound derivative, but rather a “new Santana classic” penned and performed by the Gregg Rolie Band.  Perhaps this song most eloquently revealed the band’s ongoing role in maintaining the fire of the original Santana legacy.  This is not just a band that wallows in a classic sound.  Rather, it is a group that keeps it alive, fresh, and new.

Turning back to the first Santana album, the group launched into the percussive epicosity of “Soul Sacrifice” rendered essentially in the manner of the iconic, blistering version performed at the Woodstock festival.  Griffey’s soloing soared and wailed over the propulsive current, at times coming close to the phrasing of Mr. Santana, even borrowing a few signature lines.  Areas, Barrero, and Wisko fueled the rhythmic fire with explosive force during the extended percussive middle of the number.  Rolie’s magnificent solo underscored how his instrumental voice was as much a part of the Santana sound as was his actual voice. 

Closing out with the triple-punch of “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen/Oye Como Va,” the band brought it home on an extended high-note.  Hearing Rolie’s rich, chocolate voice intone Peter Green’s lyrics brought me back to the excitement of hearing the formative Santana reworking of the obscure Fleetwood Mac number decades ago.  A nod to Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” during the rollicking, propulsive workout of Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” added a nice variant on the vibrant musical retrospection that constitutes this triad of the quintessential Santana sound.


Lloyd Raymond
 
Lloyd Raymond
   

Capping a blissfully incendiary ninety-minute set, the extended encore of “Toussaint L’Overture” segueing into “Everybody’s Everything” added a tasteful sonic dessert to the abundant and satisfying entrée of the main set.  The former - one of Santana’s most electrifying instrumentals was supercharged, barreling along in intense rhythmic waves surfed by alternating solos by Rolie, Griffey, and Minko, until breaking into the anthemic song: “Time for you to all get down” indeed!  Anyone not smiling and dancing (in one form or another) by this point must have been decidedly inanimate.  Stompingly good to the last note, the encore medley topped an exhilarating, perfect set.

With their infectious vibe, the Gregg Rolie Band is very much at home in an outdoor, festival setting, as was the case on the civic mall in Denver at the “Taste of Colorado” celebration of food, music and art.  Dancing on the lawn, wafts of food and other aromatic substances, a beautifully mild nighttime sky, and smiling faces added to the celebratory feel.  At times the mix could have been a bit better.  The guitar (while brilliant) was a bit overly loud and Rolie’s organ was occasionally lower in the mix than would have been optimal.  His melodic runs and phrasing are so exquisite that it was a shame to have to strain to hear them on a few occasions.  Fortunately, such minor sound-balance issues were few and far in between and did not dampen the scorching intensity of the performance.  Gregg Rolie is a legend – an architect of a major force in rock’s history, an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a masterful singer/organist/songwriter.  Throughout a long and varied career, Rolie has several times helped shape the changing sound of rock and roll.  His (relatively) recent return to his “roots” – the blues-inspired, Latin-drenched sound of his tenure with the original Santana band, brings him back to his most noteworthy musical legacy – a pioneering fusion of diverse musical elements.  His performance with the Gregg Rolie Band abundantly demonstrated why he is deserving of the appellation “legend” – not just then, but also in the here-and-now.  Go see this band!  Run, don’t walk….or better yet, dance!

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Lloyd Raymond
 
Lloyd Raymond
   
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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