Santiago – 22 Somerset Dr. 1976 – 1978

Drummer-singer-composer Neftali Santiago (a.k.a. Funkadrill) is best known for his rock-solid timekeeping and musical contributions to progressive 1970s funk band Mandrill, but there is more to his story – much more as it turns out.

Beginning his professional career in music during the late 1960s at just 15 years old, Santiago cut his teeth performing behind and with many well-known name acts of the time and also touring the infamous “Chitlin’ Circuit.” At 19, he fulfilled a dream by being able to join his favorite group Mandrill in time to appear on the group’s third and most successful album, 1973’s Composite Truth, which peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Soul Albums Chart. In studio and on stage he pounded the skins as the legendary band pumped out timeless classics that included “Ape Is High,” “Git It All,” “Fencewalk,” “Hang Loose,” “Mango Meat,” “Positive Thing” and “Funky Monkey.” However, in the mid-1970s after Mandrill released its last album for the Polydor label, the double-LP Mandrilland (due to its funk and breadth my personal favorite), for the next few years Santiago took a break from the band.

Until quite recently, what he was up to during that time to a large extent and for most people was a mystery. The missing pieces to that puzzle come together and answer that question on 22 Somerset Dr. 1976 – 1976, which unearths long lost gems credited to “Santiago.” Following is a paraphrased excerpt from the liner notes of the nicely packaged CD and vinyl album:

In the late 1960s, Neftali Santiago’s family bought their first home in Willingboro, N.J., at 22 Somerset Drive. There he would learn to play the drums and honed his skills, which landed him a spot as the drummer and a singer/songwriter in Mandrill, one of the most diverse funk bands of all time. In 1975, Santiago took a hiatus from the band and returned home to start a new project. Though he would return to Mandrill in 1978, between the years of 1975 and 1978 Santiago recorded an album’s worth of material that had largely been unreleased.

Under the moniker Santiago, Neftali and talented multi-instrumentalist Joe Byrne recorded four tracks, two of which landed on the band’s first single in 1975. Despite the limited success of the group’s only single, Neftali’s manager secured high profile tours with the Ohio Players and Gil Scott-Heron. After moving across the country, Neftali started new bands (the Santiago Band, Santiago & Friends and Neftali’s Beast) and kept recording, though nothing came of the tracks except the mysteriously bootlegged “Bionic Funk” 45 in the late 1970s.

Though Neftali’s solo career came to an end in 1978 when he rejoined Mandrill, he left a treasure trove of unreleased funk tracks that are likely to please fans of that group as well as other popular acts of the period like the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic and Graham Central Station.

Given the pedigree, as you might expect and certainly would hope for the instrumentation, playing and vocals (most leads by Neftali and Raydio’s Arnell Carmichael backing on two cuts) are all first-rate. What you might also expect, however, is that the recordings would be rough around the edges. While there is an element of that as evidenced with some demo and alternate take inclusions, the production vibrancy and sound quality for a project that has collected dust somewhere for 40 years is remarkable.

To top it all off, the material itself is a delightful mix of breezy and contemplative soul (“Feelin’ Good,” “Alone Together” and “Everybody Hears but Nobody Listens”), catchy funk and dance tracks (“Bionic Funk,” “Let Out Your Beast” and “Set It Free”) and funk-jazz instrumentals (“Land of the Leaping No No” and “To and From Gamma 4”). There is even a dash of (funky) New Wave with “Freakin’,” which well predates the ground Rick James mined in 1981 with the monster hit “Superfreak.”

Like food from the gods that has fallen out of the sky as feast to the famine-stricken, Santiago’s 22 Somerset Dr. 1976 – 1978 has materialized to quench those thirsting for vintage funk and soul. The album is a portal to nearly a half-century ago when radio, record stores and stages were rife with impeccable musical craft, innovation and heart. This set also spotlights what a special artist and bandleader Neftali Santiago was (and continues to be, check out his latest work “Release the Funk” as Funkadrill with late great P-Funk alums Garry Shider and Cordell Mosson).

Be sure to set your listening destination to 22 Somerset Dr. for a musical journey well worth taking. Copies in multiple formats are available here. Also check out Neftali Santiago’s in depth and comprehensive September 2017 interview on the “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” show.

RATING: A-