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edge staff writer


Gregg Rolie talks Santana, Journey & Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band

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There's a great memoir inside singer, songwriter and musician Gregg Rolie - if he could sit still long enough to write it.

Rolie served as original lead vocalist, keyboardist and organist for Santana (1966-1971) and Journey (1973-1980) and is currently a member of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, performing Wednesday, June 8, at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Having spent a considerable chunk of the last five decades on the road, Rolie isn't fazed by busy schedules but even by his standards, 2016 has been a doozy so far.

For the first time since 1971, the original Woodstock-era lineup of Santana has recorded an album of all-new material.

'It's called Santana IV because the original members appeared on only the first three Santana albums,' Rolie said in a phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.

Riddled with riffs and rhythm, the classic original Santana sound is all over Santana IV.'

'Now we have more knowledge, more maturity and more consideration for each other,' Rolie told me when asked how he felt the band is different today than it was 45 years ago.

The decision to reunite the band was made by Carlos Santana but Rolie says that guitarist Neal Schon was a chief instigator.

'This whole idea came from Neal pestering Carlos like a guided missile,' as Carlos put it,' Rolie says. 'Everywhere he went, there was Neal talking about doing a guitar album or a guitar show. From there, Carlos came up with the idea of putting the original band back together.'

When Rolie first heard of the idea, he was on tour in the Pacific Rim with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. 'Neal was pestering me about it and I said I'll wait to talk to Carlos,' Rolie explains. 'When Carlos told me that he wanted to do Santana IV,' I said I'm in, let's go!''

When the five musicians met up for a private rehearsal in Las Vegas, Rolie says none of them knew what to expect. 'We didn't know for sure what would happen so we just started playing for six hours! It was amazing,' he says.

Rolie says it was almost as if the original band had never stopped playing. 'You just don't forget this kind of chemistry,' he says. 'It's almost like we're not doing it ourselves. It just comes. Everybody plays off each other like it's jazz -but it's not.'

When the band began writing new material for an album, they quickly amassed 40 new songs and chose 16 for Santana IV.' 'We did it very quickly and picked the ones we wanted to do and that's what you hear,' Rolie told me.

Tracks like 'Anywhere You Want to Go,' 'Leave Me Alone' and 'Fillmore East' would have fit snugly on any of the first three Santana albums.

A pivotal figure in the early Santana story was Bill Graham, a legendary impresario and concert promoter from the 1960s until his death in a helicopter crash in 1991. His venues, the Fillmore East and West (in New York and San Francisco respectively) set a new standard in rock music presentation. Graham focused on making each show as pleasurable as possible for the audience and the performers.

A champion of Santana almost from the start, Graham landed them the gig of a lifetime when he was asked to consult on music festival planned for upstate New York in mid-August 1969. Graham agreed to help under one condition Santana must be added to the bill for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The fact that most people didn't know who they were wasn't a problem.

The first Santana album wasn't due to appear in stores until several weeks after the Woodstock festival but the audience of 500,000 loved them. As seen in the film, following Santana's triumphant set, a smiling Bill Graham walks onstage and embraces Rolie.

'We started on the west coast but Woodstock set it' for us,' Rolie says. 'If you were in the Woodstock movie, you had a career. It was brilliant. They filmed the festival from the beginning when they were building it all the way to the end when they were cleaning up the garbage. It was a great documentary that captured exactly what happened there and it will never be repeated.'

Rolie explains why he thinks Santana made such an instant connection with their audience.

'The music is so pure, honest and heart-felt, it reached an entire generation. It's like blues, it won't go away. It's the same thing on the new album because we're using our heart and not our head.'

Rolie says the track 'Fillmore East' is both a tribute to Graham and the storied venues where the band and so many of their peers made music history. 'It's very ethereal,' Rolie says of the song. 'I think we played for about 20 minutes. Someone stopped us and it's a good thing because Carlos said we'd still be playing it (laughs).'

In an interview shared last week via Spotify, Carlos Santana said of Fillmore East': 'If you could only scrape the walls of the Fillmore East or West, you could hear what went on there. So that's what we did. That vision conjures The Doors, Ravi Shankar, the Grateful Dead, Paul Butterfield, Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Santana, Cream and Jimi Hendrix'

'We had this instrumental where we're all just playing off of each other and we needed a name so I suggested we call it 'Fillmore East' because a lot of things happened for us because of Bill Graham,' Rolie told me.

Blues Magic' captures some dynamic interplay between Rolie and Santana.

'All the music we did was first or second take,' Rolie says. On Blues Magic,' Neal had some chords and we played that while I mumbled some lyrics as Carlos played the guitar. Then I went home and wrote the lyrics to his guitar. It's usually the reverse.'

The original Santana lineup recently performed concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Uncasville, CT and Allentown, PA.

'People have asked me, what was it like to play live with these guys again? It really is like no time has passed,' Rolie told me. 'It was like 40 years just went by Boom. When it comes to playing with this group of guys, it's just like riding a bicycle. The energy is way up and the crowds were amazed by it.'

Rolie's Santana reunion is taking a pause as he resumes touring as a member of Ringo Starr & the All-Starr Band, set to make their first Maine appearance on June 8 at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

This is Rolie's fourth year as a member of Ringo's band which also includes Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather of Toto, Richard Page of Mr. Mister, Warren Ham and Gregg Bissonette. It's the longest-serving All-Starr' lineup since Ringo adopted the concept in 1989.

'For the first couple of years, I had to pinch myself every time I looked back,' Rolie says of Ringo Starr. 'There he is! I'm playing with this guy!'

A first-generation Beatles fan, Rolie believes that the foursome are responsible for inspiring more people to start playing music than any other figures.

'I remember listening to 'Please Please Me' on my little clock radio at night when I was 16 or something like that,' Rolie said. 'It was before anybody knew who The Beatles were and I thought 'Man, this is cool stuff.' When you think about the amount of music they gave us in just seven years, it's amazing what they came up with.'

The setlist for Ringo & the All-Starrs is drawn from Starr's solo career and Beatles songs where Starr sang the lead vocal like 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' 'Yellow Submarine,' 'Don't Pass Me By' and 'What Goes On.' In addition, they play hits associated with the members of his band. Concert-goers can expect to hear Rolie take the lead on early Santana hits like 'Evil Ways,' 'Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen' and 'Oye Como Va.'

'There's not a lot of Hammond B3 organ on the original versions of songs that we do whether it's Ringo's song, Todd's song or Steve Lukather from Toto but they made it a band and it works,' Rolie says. 'It comes out a little different from the originals but you recognize everything and it's a great amount of fun for us and for the audience.'

Two days of rehearsals for the summer tour were scheduled to take place in late May in New York. After four years together, Rolie says it doesn't take long for the guys to get up to speed.

'This band is made up of such great musicians, we don't need to rehearse very much,' Rolie explains. 'Everybody plays their parts and everybody plays each other's music like it's their own. There's no fluffing. Ringo wouldn't have it any other way. (At this point, Gregg adopts Ringo's Liverpudlian accent) 'C'monget up on it!'

Assuming that Rolie's All-Starr' band-mates are equally big Beatles fans, I asked him if there was a temptation during private moments to ask questions of his boss about his old band.

'There isn't a temptation to ask him Beatles questions although we do sometimes try to get him to play Beatles songs that are not in our regular set,' Rolie says. 'He won't do it because we're not The Beatles and I respect that. We would love to do some of those songs but he sticks with his vision of Ringo's All-Starr Band' which is everybody plays songs that brought them forth.'

Telling me that Ringo Starr is really just a 'regular guy' despite his legendary status, Rolie says the former Beatle also happens to be a great bandleader.

'Ringo runs a great band and he's surrounded by great musicians. He knows how to run a band so it runs smoothly. He's a band guy' and a great leader because of it.'

Once his current tour with Ringo Starr is complete, Rolie looks forward to more dates with the original Santana lineup.

When asked what excites him most about playing with Santana, he cites the group's symbiotic relationship with their audience.

'When you play, you're giving to a crowd and the crowd gives back to you and you have it back to them. It keeps going. That's the kind of band this is and it just grows and grows.'

Neal Schon, Rolie's guitar-slinging Santana band-mate, is set to appear with Journey at Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor on Wednesday, June 22. The pair co-founded Journey in 1973.

When Rolie and Schon departed from Santana during the recording of 1972's 'Caravanserai' ('Basically, it was musical differences',' he says), Rolie took a detour and opened a restaurant with his father in his native Seattle, Washington.

'By the way, don't ever do that,' he advised me with a laugh. 'It was like going from the pan to the fire. Owning a restaurant was one of the hardest thingswell I won't do it again, let's put it that way. It was impossible (laughs).'

In 1973, when Rolie received a call from Schon and Journey's manager, Walter James 'Herbie' Herbert II, about putting a new band together, he left the pan and the fire for Journey and seven years of recording and touring the world.

Burned out in 1980 and ready to start a family, Rolie left Journey and has played with them on two occasions since.

Content with his current role in Santana and as a member of Ringo's All-Starr's,' Rolie says that if the opportunity arose to rejoin Journey permanently, he wouldn't rule it out.

'If the door opened to play regularly with Journey, I'd look into it,' he says. 'Right now, just coming home from playing those (Santana) shows, I must tell you that Santana is everything to me. It was my firstborn' if you will. When I sit down to play something, this is where I go. It's blues-based it's where I play.'

('The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth) and WAEI AM 910.)

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