Carlos Santana has had problems with creative direction for the past few years. Ever since the commercial failure of his groundbreaking Welcome album and the corporate refusal to release Lotus, the masterful recording from a series of Japanese concerts that presented the Santana band at its instrumental apogee, Carlos has been casting around for a conceptual foothold that can satisfy his musical aspirations while adhering to manager Bill Graham’s demand for commerciality. He arrived at an interim solution with an album of catchy R&B/salsa songs, Amigos, and the addition of a fine vocalist, Greg Walker. But Moonflower evidences a continuing dilemma.
As a live record, this is a decided retrogression from Lotus: there is no sense of a coherent set here, and the programming all too frequently sounds like it resulted from a greatest-hits mentality. There are a few tremendous moments, but not enough to sustain momentum over the four sides. So the package is masked with several studio tracks stuck at the beginning of each side to take the pressure off the live material. This seems shoddy and deceptive, mere filler saved only by the band’s graceful playing.
Keyboardist Tom Coster continues to be the band’s hidden leader, playing alternately fiery and lyrical solos and fills on ten different instruments. His interplay with Carlos’ gutsier guitar tone is occasionally breathtaking, and he steals the show when he solos over relentless Latin percussion backing. Such moments of transcendence as at the end of “Dance with Me” make me long for the purposefulness and integrity the band achieved on Lotus. The musicians deserve that kind of presentation, but they have to fight for it, not mask their purpose beneath a patchwork like Moonflower.