Photo & Story by Scott A. Smith
The singing co-founder of Santana and Journey remains full of musical muscle these days.
At 66, Gregg Rolie still possesses that wonderfully haunting vocal quality that first ushered the studio version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” and Journey’s early, prog-rock work into pop culture’s VIP section. It’s no surprise that the vocalist-keyboardist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the original Santana band, but it’s downright startling how commanding and inspired Rolie’s singing pipes have remained.
Proof that Rolie’s vocal and piano-playing skills haven’t wilted from Father Time’s on-going march was witnessed by an appreciative crowd on Oct. 11 inside the UAFS at Second Street theater in Fort Smith, Ark. Rolie and fellow Austin, Texas resident Alan Haynes (guitar) performed choice, stripped-down cuts from the catalogs of Santana and Journey, as well as recent and soon-to-be-released material they’ve created under the Gregg Rolie Band moniker.
Building their voices upon piano and guitar only, the duo dished out a low-key, instrumental version of “Evil Ways,” which boldly strayed from its usually assertive arrangement. This left-of-center take of “Evil Ways” came as a welcomed surprise, guaranteeing a varied, enticing set list.
Rolie also playfully shook things up by putting a bluesy, New Orleans-style spin on Journey’s FM staples “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime.” Rolie’s piano runs were immaculate yet edgy, and Haynes’ fretwork danced from delicate and vulnerable to muscular, enveloping sounds of volcanic passion. Haynes tackled the near-impossible by recreating the stinging colors of Carlos Santana’s lead-guitar passages for “Black Magic Woman,” and he and Rolie later turned Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” upside down into a meditative, slow-tempo slice of beauty.
Not only is Rolie still a spectacular performer, but he’s an engaging host. Treating the concert much like an intimate get-together with friends, he joked about his age and his desire to collect his Social Security checks, and he reminisced about the early years of Santana and how he and Santana guitarist Neal Schon left to form Journey in 1973.
Rolie then spoke of how he hand-picked his replacement in Journey, ex-Babys keyboardist-guitarist Jonathan Cain, and he revealed how he, Schon and Carlos Santana are reforming the original Santana band for a possible tour in 2014.
Rolie also answered questions from the audience, revealing how he initially felt when he and Santana were first nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s a political thing,” he said of the RRHOF. “At first, I wasn’t going to go to the induction ceremony. I was working on a hot rod or something, but then a friend said, ‘Gregg, you really should go to the induction. You know, some people win a bunch of Grammy Awards but they never get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You should really do this.’ And so I did. I went to the induction, and I’m glad I did.”
When asked if Journey will ever get inducted into the Hall of Fame, Rolie sounded unsure. “You know, it’s a stigma thing,” he said of Journey’s harshest critics. “Journey was – and still is – a huge rock band. We sold something like 100 million albums, and everywhere I go, I see fans of Journey, so you would think that Journey would be in the Hall of Fame. But I don’t know.”
Rolie also shared his experiences as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, announcing that the band – Starr, Rolie, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Mr. Mister bassist Richard Page, among others – are about to embark on a Latin American tour.
“I have no regrets in life,” Rolie told fans during a post-gig, impromptu meet-and-greet session at UAFS at Second Street. “I wouldn’t even change the bad stuff in the past, because that has made me who I am today.”
Rolie then grinned before laughing.
“I mean, I got to be a part of two of the biggest rock bands in the world, and I get to do concerts like tonight and also I get to go on tour with Ringo Starr, a Beatle,” he said. “And we don’t play like old men today. We still have the fire to play and create music, and I’m so fortunate to have this life. I recognize that I’m fortunate, and I know how lucky I am every single day. I have a great life.”