I hadn’t picked up a Santana album since his 1999’s multi-award winning Supernatural. Guitar Heaven is a covers collection featuring guitar champion Carlos Santana joining forces with an assortment of guest vocalists, with tunes selected from the catalogues of The Rolling Stones, Cream, Deep Purple and AC/DC among others.
There is no doubt that Santana is among the all-time greats. He plays the guitar is if it was an extension of himself: Hendrix could, Clapton can, and Carlos does. However, covers albums are risky projects for distinguished musicians to undertake, as their abilities are likely to be limited by the constraints of the source material. On Guitar Heaven, Santana’s talent is restrained by the compulsion to play these tracks too authentically to the originals. Sure, there is flair where space permits, and everything is performed meticulously, but sadly very little becomes Santana’s own.
On George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Santana gives the Beatles’ classic a unique perspective, and India.Arie soulful vocal is genuinely moving. My favorite element is the cello playing of Yo-Yo Ma, though it is way too far back in the mix for my taste. This tune is why I picked up the CD.
Chris Cornell from Seattle’s own Soundgarden does a stunning Robert Plant impersonation on Whole Lotta Love, though the tempo seems a slight bit hurried compared to how Page plays on the backside of the beat in the Zeppelin version. Chester Bennington, of Linkin Park, presents a subdued performance on The Doors’ Riders on the Storm equally parts alluring and unsettling. But Santana’s embellishments usually consist of just a few seconds of lead lines.
There is an interesting reinterpretation of AC/DC’s Back in Black Nas fronting with female back-up vocals changes the song to a rap-rock-anthem modern vibe that I actually really appreciated.
Another winner is Little Wing. Not only is Santana’s guitar playing heavenly (pun very much intended), Joe Cocker would make Jimi proud with his emotionally charged rendition. In my opinion, it ranks up there with the original. Can’t Hear me Knocking was an interesting choice from the Rolling Stones catalogue. Of all the notorious charts brought to us from the Grandfathers of Rock, this was it. The harshness of the Stones was polished to an almost pop-sound radio play.
Dance the Night Away, Bang a Gong & Photograph are basically copies that sound updated singularly by their modern production values.
Smoke on the Water with its all too familiar riff (if you ever picked up a guitar, you played it) surprised me as a choice for the album. I didn’t find anything all that compelling in the new adaptation.
If you truly love these songs, you’ll remain loyal to the originals. But if it’s to Carlos that your heart belongs, enjoyment aplenty can be expected from a well-realized set that could well follow its predecessors’ commercial success.