by Nick DeRiso
Gregg Rolie, a founding member of Santana and then Journey, is probably best remembered as this tiny speck playing keyboards in a sold-out arena. That makes the deeply introspective new EP Five Days, recorded live with just piano and vocals, an unexpected and intimate revelation.
Rolie offers a couple of originals, reexamines two of his most memorable vocals from those seminal rock bands, and — in one of the more intriguing moments — takes on the pre-war blues standard “Trouble in Mind,” previously a hit for Nina Simone and Dinah Washington, and also famously recorded by Louis Armstrong, among a host of others.
In fact, for all of its homey sparseness, there is an interesting musical range to Five Days, recorded in his central Texas living room on a piano given to him by his father in the early days of Santana.
“Love Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” has the feel of a darkened caberet. “If I Went Home” finds Rolie longing for the comforts of familiarity, and features the EP’s prettiest vocal. There’s a gristly swagger to “Cool Little Mama.” As for “Trouble in Mind,” Rolie has always had the menacing melancholy to pull off something like this, but time has purpled his voice, making this version particularly effective.
Of course, the principal focus for most fans will be a pair of songs he made famous with Santana and with Journey, and Rolie doesn’t disappoint.
Five Days, released on his own label, opens with “Black Magic Woman,” a career-making vocal for Rolie as a member of Carlos Santana’s band. Rolie untangles the lyric, replacing the torrid sexuality so familiar from the 1970 version, featured on Santana’s Abraxas, with a quiet reminiscence. When he sings “don’t turn your back on me, baby,” there’s a regret unheard before.
Rolie then takes a contemplative turn on the piano, filling in the blanks of the story. His playing ebbs and flows, suggesting a fiery love affair’s sped-up narrative. When Rolie returns, he treats the song’s final line like a meditation: “I can’t leave you alone.”
Gregg Rolie’s Five Days EP is available for download here.
Next comes “Anytime,” from Journey’s 1978 LP Infinity. Where we once heard a precipitant bravado, this young man who knew deep inside that his come on would work, there are now these nagging doubts. “Anytime that you want me,” once a winking backdoor proposition, begins to sound like a lonely plea.
As with “Black Magic Woman,” Rolie lets the song spool out during the verses, before rousing himself for the chorus. Rolie’s solo here, though, is a wonder — this rollicking, barrelhouse aside. It’s like a moment of romantic frustration shaking loose, and “Anytime” is reborn.
Rather than echoing his earlier successes, Rolie is working hard to find new insights. And, often, he succeeds. That, of course, means Five Days doesn’t blaze any new trails, but I don’t think that’s the aim.
Instead, Rolie stops to examine a few familiar stones along the pathway. And he helps us see something there that we hadn’t before.