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Santana summons that old black magic; The Lumineers try to outrun ‘Ho Hey’

Santana did it for me.

I could use this space to construct a much hipper image for myself. I could lie to you, and tell you that I heard the Stooges and the Ramones while simultaneously reading Lester Bangs’ cough syrup-addled scribblings in Creem Magazine. I could say I had an epiphany wherein the Lord appeared and bequeathed unto me a copy of Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” garage rock collection, as if it was a commandment-inscribed stone tablet, and said “Go forth, and lead a life devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, my son.”

In reality, I was a Beatles fanatic first, and then the Who and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and prog rock and the Doors came along. That was followed by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and lo and behold, I was just a guitar-obsessed mess, one who’d forgotten that time in third-grade music class when Ms. Thompson, oblivious to the massive crush I had on her, tried to hip us ingrates to Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” and I fell in love with it, mostly because she told me too, but also partly because it suggested roots in something far away from the suburbs I was living in, and it scared and thrilled me at the same time.

Fast forward. I’m 13, and looking for something to do one summer day when a friend said “My dad says he’ll give us a ride to SPAC to see something called Santana. Do you know what that is?” and I said “It’s guitar music, let’s go.” We did, and I’ve never been the same since, because Santana was much more than guitar music – it was the connection between “Bitches Brew” and the present day; it was African and Latin American and R&B and soul and jazz, and before I knew it, heavy metal seemed really straitlaced and not all that exotic to me. It was during this show that I mumbled to myself “I will have a life in music, whatever the cost.” And that was that.

That show happened in 1980, when Santana was touring the “Zebop!” album, and though I’ve remained a devoted fan and taken in a show or two on every single tour since, it wasn’t until Friday that I heard a new Santana studio album that spoke to me the way that “Zebop!” did. “Santana IV” (Santana IV Records) marks the first time since 1973 that most of the original lineup of Santana – the one that played the original Woodstock Festival – has performed together. Carlos Santana, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve and Michael Carabello were in that initial band, and for “Santana IV,” they’re joined by Neal Schon, who came aboard a little later, and Benny Rietveld and Karl Perazza, who came along a long while later.

This could’ve rather easily been a cash-grab, a pure nostalgia-fest, but though nostalgia in the non-pejorative sense does have something to do with it, “IV” is so much more. It has the fire, no two ways about it. Though no musician of the dozens who have passed through the Santana ranks over the years has been anything other than a beast, there’s something wholly special and definitive about the way Shrieve and Carabello and Rekow bounce around and off of each other while Rietveld holds down the fort, and Carlos and Schon goad each other onward and upward, playing with all the thrill of a young kid who just realized “Hey, I’m not bad, I can really make this thing cry and sing.” Schon in particular performs like a man possessed, or at the very least, a dude who’s blissed and blessed to be doing something other than playing “Don’t Stop Believing” with Journey for the gazillionth time. And Rolie’s is, without dissing the many great singers that came in his wake, the perfect voice for Santana, thick and buttery and soulful, filling the cracks between his “take it to church” Hammond B3 fills as if “Black Magic Woman” was tracked yesterday, not 45 years ago.

Is “IV” better than “Abraxas” or “Santana III”? Probably not. But it’s in the ballpark, and that’s saying an awful lot. In his liner notes for the album, Carlos calls this “a masterpiece of joy,” stating plainly in four words what it has taken me hundreds to suggest. He’s right. Get this, and enjoy the first great record of the summer of 2016.
While I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll cop to something else: The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” is a song that struck me when I first heard it as a 4-minute encapsulation of the death of hope.

I hated it with aggression, and it felt like the universe, knowing this, was laughing at me throughout 2012, as the earworm-infested ditty showed up everywhere, from TV commercials to soundtracks to movie trailers, like it sought to justify the existence of Mumford & Sons and the 6-string banjo tuned like a guitar that was supposed to represent “authenticity” in this new arena-folk movement. Hearing (and seeing) this made me physically ill, and brought from my lips vitriol most foul.

As it turns out, I don’t think the Lumineers like “Ho Hey” very much either, because their long-awaited sophomore effort, “Cleopatra,” (Dualtone Records) avoids that “Lumber-sexual” stomp and faux-folk strum like the plaugue it surely is. When Jimmy Fallon introduced the Lumineers on his late-night show last week, he called them “My very favorite band,” thereby obliterating the respect I’d previously had for him, but when the trio played, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they’d matured, moved on, and dropped the Mumford shtick.

“Cleopatra” represents a step forward, and deserves points for dropping the hootenanny nonsense in favor of a ruminative neo-folk pushed along by yearning-infused melodies. It’s a vast improvement over the “Ho Hey” era.

That said, it’s still overly earnest and therefore, incredibly boring. But you can’t have it all, can you?


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