One Saturday afternoon in October 1976 I rode my bicycle round to Rod Amberton’s place to watch a total eclipse. It seemed like a friendly thing to do, given that this sort of solar phenomenon only occurred every few decades and Melbourne was, apparently, a prime location from which to view it. Assuming the clouds gave permission, of course.
Arriving a few minutes before the big yellow orb was due to be blanked by the dark side of the moon – yes, I know it’s more like the sun being followed by a moonshadow, but some poetic Floyd-licence please, we weren’t into Cat Stevens – I dropped the bicycle on the grass and knocked on the screen door at the back of the house. Silence. Hm. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be out. When I say ‘they’ I guess I meant Rod, as the family was not really one that did stuff together. The older brother was indeed quite a bit older, Rod’s Father worked all the time and his sweet Mum mostly kept things ticking over at home. But not today.
I could see into the glassed-in porch cum family room off which Rod’s bedroom lay, far enough away from the proper adult living areas that we could play records up to distortion point – in those days somewhere around 15 watts per channel, don’t you know – until quite late. Maybe half-past eleven.
But in the singular present it was half-past four and a decision point. No time to ride home to watch the eclipse in my own back yard so, feeling just a little uncomfortable about occupying the Amberton patch on my own, I sank down onto the grass and waited.
What was memorable was the silence. It was quiet. It was still. Though there was some cloud haziness, a dark scimitar clearly crept across the shining disc, carving light into shadow. Then it wasn’t quiet. Birds. Raising confused voices to this unexpected evening. Chirruping their outrage at being robbed of four hours of daylight and crankily preparing for sleep like a banished child.
Then before they could get properly settled the twilight began slowly departing and, like a curtain pulled back, the bright afternoon stage was once again revealed. The birds cheered. I rode home.
Later, having dutifully deposited my 20 cents in the designated money box on top of the fridge, I phoned the Amberton residence and ascertained that Rod was now in residence. So I rode over there again. It was after the real actual twilight by this time, and getting chilly. After watching a news report of the eclipse we repaired to his room and I once more sank earthwards, this time onto a cushion against the wall. A stack of LPs were slouched against the wall next to me so I leafed through them, extracting a cover that seemed truly apposite after the afternoon’s entertainment. No, not the prism one; Santana’s Caravanserai.
“Pass it over, I’ll put it on,” said Rod.
The needle thunked onto the vinyl and a moment later, emerging from the background crackles came the quintessentially summer sound of crickets, their phased whistlechoir being joined by a keening sax sounding an evening call to prayer. The bass and percussion entered, building very slowly with carefully placed guitar notes then sustained electric piano chords like ancient temple bells. I was entranced.
Forty years later, I put on Caravanserai again and once more I’m transported.
After the introduction of ‘Eternal caravan of reincarnation’ the energy picks up with rolling, soaring glory in ‘Waves within’, powered by the transcendental guitar of Carlos Santana but given a solid grounding by the percussion section of Michael Shrieve and James ‘Mingo’ Lewis.
The segue into ‘Look up (to see what’s coming down)’ provides a change up to a Latin soul-funk groove of hip-swinging potency. Greg Rolie’s organ adds smouldering urgency echoed by Santana’s guitar lines. This in turn flows into the first song, ‘Just in time to see the sun’, delivered in impassioned rock style by the organist.
Things settle down for the spacious ‘Song of the wind’, a superb showcase for the leader’s six string stylings. The incorporation of jazz fusion textures and exploratory solos into the band was the defining feature of Caravanserai, making it a perhaps little harder for fans of the first three albums to access, but ensuring its timelessness. Side one concludes with ‘All the love in the universe’ where, after an attention capturing introduction, a human chorus introduces the second vocal, an uplifting lyric that seeks to share Santana’s commitment to his spiritual growth. (See also the Santana/McLaughlin collaboration from the following year, 1973’s Love Devotion and Surrender).
New thoughts will purify my mind
And clean my body
New lives will fall together
Like an endless story
Now I’m an unbeliever and sceptic of eye-rolling insistence, yet by the end of this side – with the voices, pumping organ, ebullient bass lines and soul-piercing guitar – friends, I’m ready to convert, to don the white robe and eshew all worldly pollutants of the spirit. Except my four copies of Caravanserai. Hm. Perhaps a little way short of full Enlightenment as yet.
‘Future primitive’ opens the second side with atmospheric strokes of sound before pattering percussion enters, stage left (and right). Congas bongos and timbales are prominent in this piece. No surprise: it was written by percussionists Jose Areas and Mingo Lewis. Michael Shrieve, a prince amongst drummers, is highly audible too. The spacey opening flows into the third (and final) song ‘Stone flower’. This Latin-infused ballad combines human wonder with the natural environment in a way that is implicit throughout the album, including the wonderfully evocative cover photo (by Joan Chase).
Just like a ship out on the sea
floating alone no one around me or beyond me
the sun is on me,
Then suddenly I felt a kiss out of the breeze
that did caress me and possess me
oh it astounds me
Although I labelled ‘Stone flower’ a ballad, that is not strictly accurate. There is more rhythmic movement and melodic spark in this piece than most gentle songs. Still, you notice when the percussive pace picks up for instrumental ‘La fuente del ritmo’ where second guitarist Neal Schon plays some lovely harmonised lines with the leader. Again we have that exciting combination of Latin groove – a fast one here – with flowing, dancing jazz-rock guitar lines. In this piece the addition of a Tom Coster electric piano solo is just the cherry on top. Or perhaps chilli.
The final piece, ‘Every step of the way’ is the longest on the album, beginning pensively with a pulse bass (Tom Rutley) and spare stabs of guitar. A tension builds, it is dramatic music that utterly transcends mainstream rock music (and much fusion too!) while being entirely recognisable. Subtle orchestral textures add to the cinemascope vision of this rich instrumental climax to a very special album.
Caravanserai belongs in the bright constellation of progressive rock albums that transcend categories. Like the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, it will not be eclipsed, no matter how many decades pass. Though we would do well to remember the warning of Omar Kyham who reminds us that although art and earth may endure, for humans, all things must pass…
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day
How Sultan after Sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way