Not even Rob Thomas could kill Carlos Santana’s mojo. He continues to play guitar with a singular fire and lyricism that transcends the instrument. Reunited with players from the Woodstock-era version of his band, one might think that he would drive himself to unparalleled heights once more. As usual, the 68-year-old genius falls victim to material that’s not always at his level on a record that, while not rudderless, could have used a better compass.
Santana’s greatest challenge has always been material. Those million-selling records that paired him with outside writers and talent exist for a reason. When he’s not wringing heaven from the neck and strings he’s pretty lost. Don’t forget that “Black Magic Woman” originated with Fleetwood Mac and “Oye Como Va” with Tito Puente. Though Santana has always delivered savory deep album cuts, his late ’70s output became a wash of confusion that lasted well over a decade. Some of that came down to chasing hits. Hits are nice, but Santana’s artistry rests in his abilities as a soloist and spiritual seeker.

IV allows him too little of that. “You and I,” which arrives late to the party, features that lyrical, transcendent playing, and percussionist Michael Carabello and drummer Michael Shrieve offer more than rhythmic support; they call and respond, react and provoke. But they also shine alongside the six-string superstar. Remember that Santana’s great kindred spirit is John Coltrane, a bandleader who, at his best, could convince the listener that all instruments were one instrument and, better than that, that performer and audience were also one. That’s what “You and I” conveys in a scant four minutes and 20 seconds, and what this classic version of the band offered at the peak of its glory.

Say what you will about the lesser material, this is a group that can’t help but be sincere. Gregg Rollie’s Hammond B3 playing on “Yambu” makes us forget that we’re listening to a tune that’ll be forgotten faster than Woodstock 2. Still, there’s a conviction that most bands will never grasp let alone convey. You can hear it on Neal Schon’s formidable playing during “Shake It,” a piece that at its worst summons images of ‘80s beer commercials. That, along with “Anywhere You Want to Go” and “Choo Choo” (“Honey, when you eat/ I love to watch you chew”) make you want to walk.

But there’s light in the forest. The great Ronald Isley helps “Love Makes the World Go Round” sizzle with an excitement that almost makes you believe that this is the Santana of old. He can’t quite recreate the same excitement for the clichéd “Freedom in Your Mind,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t dazzle you. The percussion showpiece “All Aboard” leads us to the second half of the record which proves infinitely more interesting than the first.

Starting with the tender “Sueños,” the record allows the soulful side of the band to more clearly emerge. “Caminando” moves with a fire would make Santana 1969 envious and “Blues Magic” exceeds anything released under the guitarist’s name in probably 30 years. The same might be said of “Echizo,” where the band proves that all these years later it can still climb out on a limb and return to safety without incident. Although “Leave Me Alone” isn’t quite in the same league, it’s better than anything from the record’s start. On the other hand, “Come as You Are” is a late disappointment and should have been left on the fiesta deck of your favorite cruise ship. But the record closes on a high point, “Forgiveness,” a seven-minute guitar-heavy meditation that’s raises the bar for compositions of its kind and for any future editions of Santana.

A more concise statement might have made for a better record. But then it wouldn’t have been so thoroughly Santana.

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