SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — On paper at least, the formation last year of the group Abraxas, which played the Coach House on Tuesday night, seemed full of promise. Made up of some of the most important, gifted members of early incarnations of Santana, the group theoretically seemed capable of picking up where it left off in the early '70s, before Santana became a collection of anonymous, transient sidemen.
But the formation of this group--organist/singer Gregg Rolie, guitarist Neal Schon, bassist Alphonso Johnson, drummer Mike Shrieve and percussionists Jose (Chepito) Areas and Michael Carabello, augmented by keyboardist Tom Suezek, who, like the others, is from the Bay Area--also posed many questions.
Without the guitar work and spiritual stewardship of Carlos Santana, would Abraxas sound and feel as though a key ingredient were missing? After more than two decades, could these musicians reweave the textured ensemble work that had been their hallmark? Would the post-Santana commercial pandering of Rolie and Schon, who went on to form Journey, carry over into this group and spoil its essential, progressive nature? Was Abraxas formed to make music, or simply to cash in on the current craze for geezer rock--or to make a musical statement against Carlos, against whom at least some members of this group nurse decades-old resentment? Could the new material possibly be of the same caliber as the songs on the classic Santana albums?
Abraxas' showcase at the Coach House answered almost every one of these questions in the most positive manner. If anything, these musicians' chops have improved over the years. The ensemble playing is as exciting as ever, and Schon--a superb guitarist--almost made one forget that Carlos Santana ever was part of the group. Almost.
In terms of speed and other technical skills, Schon easily peeled off licks that Santana may never have dreamed about. But he nevertheless lacked the sweet, rich tone and almost religious fervor that distinguishes Carlos as one of the most readily identifiable stylists ever to finger a fret board.
Schon has appropriated Santana's style, thrown in a good deal of John McLaughlin sway and added his own flourishes of hard-rock influence. He undeniably is a magnificent and underrated musician, but there were moments Tuesday when he overplayed, indulging in excess lick spewage.
That said, Abraxas still sounded better than any version of the Santana band in many, many years. It was a pure delight to hear these musicians back onstage together playing "Black Magic Woman," "Jingo," "Oye Como Va," "Everybody's Everything," "Guajira" and "No One to Depend On" along with a stunning version of Albert King's "As the Years Go Passing By" and a few grand new originals that bode well for this band's future.
The work of Carabello--who smiled joyously throughout the performance like a man enraptured--Shrieve and Areas was particularly enticing. Their percussion spun real magic, creating hypnotic walls of rhythm with equal amounts of grace and fire.
The set was executed with the utmost precision and professionalism. Songs segued into one another as if a single suite. Stage talk and breaks between songs were kept to a minimum as Abraxas cast its spell, pulling in a respectful and appreciative audience.
(The principals apparently have aged as well physically as they have musically, unless there was massive use of girdles and hair dye among them. This was a very youthful-looking group of fortysomethings, especially surprising for a group that rose from the substance-abusing hippie scene of San Francisco in the late '60s.)
The only damper on the evening's proceedings was a very sloppy job by the sound techs. Screaming feedback all but destroyed the first two numbers, and the volume level remained oppressive. But that put no more than a slight dent into a special night. Let's hope that Abraxas scores the major recording deal it seeks and richly deserves. Music of this caliber is rare in the trend-driven '90s; it truly is a pleasure to have these players back on the scene.
\o7 * Abraxas plays Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $19.50. (714) 957-0600. \f7