THE ALBUM Zebop! -- Santana, Columbia FC 37158; THE SHOW SANTANA -- Tuesday at 8 at Constitution Hall.
Listening to Santana's new record, "Zebop!," is like finding a long-forgotten pair of jeans. The fabric may be frayed and faded, but fond memories of a time when the two of you were inseparable are amazingly intact. Problem is, where you gonna go these days with a "Keep On Truckin'" patch on your knee?
When Carlos Santana first hit the scene in the late '60s, he was the closest thing rock had to exotica, unless you counted Jimi Hendrix. He was from Tijuana, for one thing, not San Francisco. He showed, early on, a penchant for instrumentals -- a rare thing in hippiedom. But most significant, he did more to insinuate into the rock mainstream Latin rhythms and structures (which today we take for granted) than anybody else pre-Woodstock. A combination like that practically constituted World View in those days.
The musical changes Carlos Santana has experienced since then have been primarily a reflection of his spiritual growth, and predictably enough he lost a good deal of his fire over the years. His work with Alice Coltrane, and especially with John McLaughlin, seemed less committed to music than to adulation and an almost frenzied religiosity, though there was just enough solid material to hold it all together.
"Zebop!" is a return to Santana in its more organic form. The personnel have changed for the umpteenth time in as many years, but the sound is remarkably, well, early Santana. Once again, the lyrics concern themselves more with earthly love than with heavenly grace, and the dissonance of the McLaughlin days has been replaced by the original emphasis on structure and melody.
Several songs come perilously close to being mere clones from the "Abraxas" labs, partically "Primera Invasion" (a dead ringer for "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen") and "Tales of Kilimanjaro." What saves them is a more mature, fuller sound and the distance that time has placed between these albums.Carlos Santan's emulation of John Coltrane and McCoy tyner, for instance, has always been in evidence; what's interesting is that it's easier to see in retrospect the considerable impression Santana made on Traffic and other early fusion experiments.
The nicest parts of "Zebop!" are the cover tunes, surprisingly enough. Cat Stevens' "Changes," which sounded like a 10-megaton smarm bomb in 1971, is kept here to an even, restrained tempo and delivered without any of the frenzied, false optimism that characterized the original.
Santana takes the opposite tack with J.J. Cale's "The Sensitive Kind."
Cale has always lacked the soul to make his music live up to its fine lyrics, and this version treats the piece with the gusto required to bring off a blues tune.
Ultimately, the album is hardly a groundbreaker, nor can this incarnation of Santana expect to influence the music of the '80s. Still, I suspect that wasn't the intention behind "Zebob!" Maybe you can never go home again, but an occasional stroll through the old stomping grounds has a way of cleansing the soul and reaffirming the self. Having came to terms with the past, Santana might be better equipped to do something interesting with the future.