Santana reunion ‘like riding a bicycle’

In Las Vegas, like the rest of the world, “Santana” has become synonymous with one cosmic guitar wizard, not a whole band.

Carlos Santana has been a Las Vegas headliner (off and on) since 2009, and a Las Vegas resident most of that time.

And that all commenced 10 years after “Supernatural,” the album that paired Santana’s guitar with vocals from the likes of Rob Thomas and Dave Matthews, with results in excess of 15 million sales.

But the first wave of Santana fans had to get used to it the other way around.

Those who think of Santana as the band that played Woodstock knew the first three albums as much for the voice and keyboards of Gregg Rolie, and the percussive interplay of kit drummer Michael Shrieve and percussionist Michael Carabello.

Neal Schon — who played on the third Santana album and then went on to do OK for himself with a band called Journey — helped reunite those players for a reunion album and show Monday at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay.

“We’ve all felt the same way. The timing of it, it’s like the stars aligned,” Rolie said by phone last week. “It’s time for this to happen. It was time for this music to happen.”

The “Santana IV” album comes out April 15, and Monday’s show will be filmed for TV and home video. But Rolie says the production crew will have to get in the spirit of the band, not the other way around.

“It’s about the music and it always has been,” he says. “I think that’s the entertainment. I think it’s been lost in the world that everybody’s playing to cameras. We’re going to play music, and hopefully the cameraman is good,” he says with a laugh.

Though Journey’s renewed popularity would seem to make Schon the most in demand of the bunch, Rolie says it was Schon who “really took the helm of starting this up” while Rolie was in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

Schon first pitched Santana on “a big guitar thing,” before Santana eventually suggested, “What if we just got the band back together?” Rolie recalls.

The San Francisco-born group first known as The Santana Blues Band shortened its name after Carlos Santana realized “that the blues elevator was too crowded” and that his band of black, white and Mexican “street mutts” was onto something new entirely, the guitarist wrote in his 2014 memoir, “The Universal Tome.”

“Santana was one of the original jam bands,” Rolie says.

Rolie is the voice of first-wave hits such as “Evil Ways” and “Black Magic Woman.” In the autobiography, Carlos Santana also called Rolie “the stabilizer, holding the beat together with his left hand. Somebody had to be the string on the kite.”

Close to 40 years later, most of the original band gathered in Santana’s rehearsal studio near McCarran International Airport, then recorded its reunion album at Odds On studios (now The Hideout) in suburban Henderson, not far from the Ethel M Chocolate Factory.

“From the very first day, it was like riding a bicycle; you never forget,” Rolie says.

The first rehearsals did not yet have a bassist or second percussionist; those slots would later be filled by Carlos Santana’s current bassist, Benny Rietvold (the original bassist, David Brown, died in 2000) and percussionist Karl Perazzo.

“I was covering the bass on the organ,” Rolie says. But even then, “it was just great, really, with some fantastic things that came out of it. But most of all, it was the camaraderie, and the fun.”

Even the less-than-four-minute advance single, “Anywhere You Want to Go,” bears out Rolie’s description of a loose atmosphere where most of the tracks were recorded in one to three takes.

“Neal put it very well: It’s perfectly imperfect. The magic of it is that,” Rolie notes. “It’s the art of playing music and playing off each other and feeling each other in the same room.

Rietvold had another description: “It’s like a garage band from another planet.”

The chemistry emerged “like all of the music that Santana did back then, whether it was a pre-written song or somebody else’s song, an outside number. It was about jamming on those songs and we would make them ours,” Rolie says.

“That’s what was coming out (this time). It was the same formula. When you get a group of guys like this in one room, that’s what’s gonna happen. If you try to overthink it, it won’t.”

Journey and Santana will co-headline three dates in April, possibly paving the way for a bigger summer tour. Schon will do double duty with both bands, and Rolie will sit in with Journey for a song or two, since he was part of the band’s early years before it took off with singer Steve Perry.

Rolie says he would be happy to see the Santana reunion continue, “but it’s up to Carlos in many ways. You can’t do it without him. He’s been treating it as a band and we all have a say-so, but he has the final word.”

Whatever the future holds, the project already has drawn a line from the house Santana, Rolie and Carabello once shared in Bernal Heights to a recording studio near a chocolate factory in Henderson.

“People change. In this case, I think everything changed for the good. Maturity can be a wonderful thing,” Rolie says with a laugh.

Observers of the sessions noted, “You guys have the same interaction with each other like you did when you were young. Same comfort zone, same jokes, same yukking it up,” he adds.

“If you get along with people in music, the music’s going to be really good.”

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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