For 30 years, Carlos Santana made albums. Now he produces variety shows -- old-school variety shows, the kind that open with a lady in a tutu playing the banjo, segue to a bebop quartet and end with a plate spinner. He's less a guitar player these days than a guy with a stage, a band and a booking agent. He's become the Ed Sullivan of pop.
Santana isn't the first guy to recruit a bunch of guest stars to his albums, but he is easily the most successful. "Supernatural," his 1999 Grammy-hoovering comeback, yielded one of the year's best-selling singles ("Maria, Maria") and the sort of gross receipts that artists from the Woodstock era aren't expected to earn. The idea: Gather a bunch of kids (Lauryn Hill, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Rob Thomas) and set them loose, one at a time, on some middle-of-the-road Latin-accented rock. "Supernatural" worked, and not just sales-wise. The youngsters on the album gave Santana a new generation of fans, and Santana gave the youngsters a chance to bask in the company of a master.
"Shaman," Santana's latest, takes the "Supernatural" concept and just adds more -- more styles, more stars, more songs. It is certainly the first, and most likely the last, album to feature both Chad Kroeger, of the alt-metal act Nickelback, and Placido Domingo. Pop-folk singer Dido shows up, and a few songs later, Latin rockers Ozomatli get a turn. The supporting cast assembled here reminds you of those Irwin Allen disaster films of the '70s -- a whole lot of people are crowded into this vessel. Which is one reason it sinks.
Once again, the only sonic link between these disparate acts is Santana's Latin-blues guitar, a fuzzy, fiery, high-pitched tone that has proved bizarrely impervious to time. Most guitar heroes who've been around for a few decades march through a variety of sounds; Eric Clapton evolves so often that he doesn't even look the same for more than a couple years. But somehow Santana's sound has become as fixed and constant as a designer logo, and on "Shaman" it's stitched into places that it doesn't really belong.
When Citizen Cope sings the solemn, folky "Sideways," you wish Carlos would just take five and allow the tune a mood of its own. On P.O.D.'s "America," Santana's noodlings feel like a kind of gate-crashing. Placido Domingo's tenor seems extravagantly mismatched with the soothing soft-rock of "Novus."
More than a few times, Santana and executive producer Clive Davis -- who had a hand in selecting songs and artists -- get the chemistry right. The salsa lite of "Amore (Sexo)" convincingly pairs Santana with Macy Gray, who could make the Federal Register sound like a party if she put her mind to it. The samba instrumental "Foo Foo" is going to create a couple hundred conga lines in the coming months, and there's no harm in a good conga line.
But "Shaman," like a lot of variety shows, has more personalities than character. Or rather it has the character of its predecessor. Rappers Melkie Jean and Governor Washington sum it up on their tune, "Since Supernatural": "Since 'Supernatural,' ain't nothing changed / all new players, still the same old game."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)