Gregg Rolie remembers Santana breakthrough at Woodstock: ‘We thought of it as just another gig’

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Gregg Rolie talks Santana + Woodstock, 45 years later: ‘We thought of it as just another gig’

For Gregg Rolie, then serving as singer/keyboardist in Santana, Woodstock didn’t exactly loom large. In fact, as the festival — which kicked off on August 15, 1969 — grew to truly epic proportions, Rolie was mostly concentrating on the music.

It was only later that he understood the magnitude of what had just happened.

“At the time,” Rolie tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, “it was just another festival. We flew in and we played, then stayed and saw Sly Stone — who was awesome. But as we drove out, we started passing all of these people, 500,000 people. That’s when it dawned on me. If I had known what it was going to be, I might have been scared. At the time, we thought of it as just another gig. It turned out to be the mother of all of them.”

Santana, then largely unknown outside of the Bay Area, took the stage at 2 p.m. Saturday — and, with “Soul Sacrifice,” quickly created one of the Woodstock’s signature moments. As this nearly relentless instrumental builds outward to Carlos Santana’s boiling, then angular bursts of guitar from a house-levelling rhythmic core, the legend of Santana is born right before our eyes.

“That song is just infectious, and I think that’s the reason it connected with that generation and the generation that came after,” Gregg Rolie says. “I co-wrote and co-arranged it. The rhythm is unbelievable. That was all built on jamming, and that was the way we played. We made parts out of the things we jammed. It’s become a classic; I hate to use that term, but it has. At the time, though, we were just trying to connect — and we did.”

Later that same month, Santana released its self-titled debut album, which went to No. 4 on the Billboard charts while placing “Evil Ways” in the U.S. Top 10. The charttopping follow ups Abraxas (home to “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”) and Santana III (“No One to Depend On”) would follow in 1970-71, and then Caravanserai in 1972 — though, at that point, the Woodstock-era lineup had begun to splinter.

The results swerved away from their Latin rock core into more fusion-focused sounds, and several of the core group became disinterested. As things began to change in Santana, though, the next big thing presented itself to Gregg Rolie. One of the new faces was a youngster named Neal Schon. Together, they would split off to form Journey.

“In Santana, Carlos was trying to play jazz, and quite frankly I can listen to it, but I’m not a jazz player. Nobody in the band was, including Carlos,” Rolie says. “The stuff we were playing, it was like we were leaving back the audience we built. It’s not what I would have done, so I left and Neal left — everybody left.”

Fast forward more than four decades, and Neal Schon has engineered a long-awaited reunion of Santana, Gregg Rolie and fellow Woodstock vets Mike Shrieve and Mike Carabello for a new studio effort. Bassist David Brown passed in 2000; he’s been replaced by Benny Rietveld, a 1990s-era member of Santana’s band. The project is reportedly going to be titled Santana IV.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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