The year 1977 was another period of transition for guitarist Carlos Santana. He was going into the studio to craft a follow-up to Amigos, the highly successful 1976 return to Top 10 Billboard status after abandoning a four-year immersion in jazz fusion. During that phase, Santana had turned his career over to rock promoter Bill Graham and producer David Rubinson and was searching for a way to ensure his presence on FM radio.
Festival is not as dynamic as its predecessor. Partially, that may be attributed to the fact the band was in flux. There were rumors that Graham felt the band had become "too black" and there was too much funk and not enough rock on Amigos. For whatever reason drummer Ndugu Leon Chancler, bassist David Brown, percussionist Armando Peraza and vocalist Greg Walker had departed with only keyboardist Tom Coster still on board from the previous group.
Carlos kicks the album off with the "Carnaval/Let the Children Play/Jugando" medley, almost eight minutes worth of sizzling Latin heat and a throwback to the classic days of Abraxas and Santana III. It's the furious percussion of Jose Chepito Areas on timbales and Raul Rekow on congas matching Santana's incandescent guitar licks that make the medley a high point that the rest of this wildly unenven album never quite reaches again.
"Give Me Love" is a soul-shuffle ballad and an obvious bid for R&B radio with Leon Patillo's vocals sounding quite similar to Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White. Patillo had previously appeared on the last jazz fusion Santana album, Borboletta in 1974 and toured off and on with the group until 1979. Patillo, a fine vocalist and pianist left secular music behind and has gone on to become an established gospel singer. He only sings lead on three of the album's 11 tracks, but he is one of the better vocalists Santana has worked with.
Carlos pays homage to the late,legendary Brazilian singer, Elis Regina with "Verao Vermelho." It features some excellent accoustic guitar with The Waters Family background vocalists singing the meaningless words,"Badadup, badadup, badadup, ba pa pa ba pa pa." Santana plays a flamenco guitar solo, a first for him as the track closes with a florish.
Gaylord Birch sets a military tone with his drumming on "Revelations." Keyboards have always played a vital role in Santana compositions and Tom Coster widened the range for the band when he replaced organist Gregg Rollie. In retrospect, there may be an overabundance of synthesizer flourishes on Festival, but Coster is the most accomplished keyboardist Santana has ever had with Coster able to compliment the guitarist quite well.
"Reach Up" is a slice of greasy funk is a throwaway jam between Pablo Tellez's bass, Coster's synthesisers and Santana's screaming guitar, but oh, what a jam it is. It's irresistably danceable and the kind of song best heard in cars with very loud stereo systems.
Patillo returns for the surprisingly gentle ballad, "The River" and the rave-up, "Try A Little Harder." Both songs are professionally competent if not profoundly compelling. Tellez's vocals take the lead in the album closer, "Maria Caracoles" a south-of-the-border fiesta sung entirely in Spanish.
The album peaked on the Billboard charts at #27 and went gold, but the lack of a single hurt sales. Santana would continue to change band members and musical directions releasing albums of varying quality through the Eighties and Nineties. Not until 22 years later and the mammoth success of 1999's Supernatural with it's ten million copies sold and eight Grammys would the guitarist approach and exceed the popularity he first acheived at Woodstock.
Santana has found a comfortable formula he now repeats where he serves as a guitar sideman for superstar pop artists on his own albums. He still appears on albums by jazz artists, but seems disinclined to return to his exploratory period of the Seventies. Festival represents one of the last examples of Carlos Santana emphasizing the music over FM-radio friendly vocalists, pop-rock and a lessening of his distinct Latin sound driven by the percussion as much as his soaring guitar solos.
None of the album's tracks show up in Santana's live performances and the album has become a forgotten part of the artist's discography, but Festival is worth seeking out if for no other reason than it was one of the last albums where the music, not star power and commercial concerns were the priority.
Track listing: Carnival; Let the Children Play; Jugando; Give Me Love; Verao Vermelho; Let the Music Set You Free; Revelations; Reach Up; The River; Try A Little Harder; Maria Caracoles.