Santana and John McLaughlin

santanaIn 1973, latin rocker Carlos Santana and fusion maestro John McLaughlin united for an album, Love Devotion Surrender. Primarily a tribute album of sorts to John Coltrane, the album contributed to the fusion explosion of the early ‘70s. Fast forward to 2011, where the two guitarists reunite for a one-off revisit of their early collaboration at the Montreux Jazz Festival, captured live on film just in time for a 40th anniversary 2013 release.

Eagle Vision are responsible for bringing numerous live music titles into the market, many of which are filmed at Montreux. As with several other Live At Montreux releases, long-time presenter and festival founder Claude Nobs takes to the stage to introduce the artists preceding the concert and contributes harmonica at a later stage. It was sad to watch the legendary concert promoter on screen knowing that his particular role in music history has come to an end after complications following a skiing accident in December 2012 which ultimately took his life. For the most part, the vision is crisp and detailed throughout the performance and the multiple cameras only occasionally switch to an angle that is a little irrelevant to what is happening sonically. The packaging includes a detailed booklet on the concert with quotes from the two guitarists relating to Nob’s unexpected passing.

Santana favours a wildly saturated tone more suited to a hard rocker for this performance, whereas McLaughlin has favoured a heavily modulated chorus effect with lighter gain saturation for many years now, and it takes a while for these two colliding, (intentionally?) mismatched guitar tones to gel in the overall mix. In fact, Santana’s guitar seems to sit just a little high in the mix for most of the performance, occasionally stepping on McLaughlin’s more reserved sonic input.

It must be said that this reunion concert – in the spirit of fusion music – is more of a celebration and exploration of the material rather than a finely-tuned and well-planned performance, so there are moments where some of the arrangements aren’t 100% and other moments where some of the improvised ideas don’t pay off, but fans of this genre of music have long accepted those terms as part of the journey, the trade-off being occasional moments of pure inspiration.

On this performance, which includes a wealth of material not only from the aforementioned 1973 album but also versions of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, Miles Davis’ Right Off and John Lee Hooker’s Shake It Up And Go amongst many others, Santana takes on the role of bandleader, while McLaughlin takes his instructions and tries to weave them into context. When McLaughlin gets a chance to stretch out and work his fast fusion magic into proceedings, things start to sonically solidify and find their way. Throughout the concert, McLaughlin exerts pure joy and takes it all in his stride, even in some of the looser moments.

Santana, on the other hand, seems to take some time to find his way into the performance, adding occasional licks that come across as inappropriate even for a style of music that thrives on experimentation.

Having said all that, thank God for live music that takes some risks and isn’t planned down to the tiniest subdivision with sequencers holding the whole thing together in case someone drops the ball. When the guitarists hit their straps and find their sweet spots there are moments of magic in this concert which outweigh the odd misplaced phrase or lost chord progression. The fact that legendary players of this stature are still making music for companies that want to bring that music to listeners is encouraging in a musical landscape which often trivialises the contributions to contemporary music that many rock forefathers made and still make.