Two days shy of his 63rd birthday Carlos Santana played a high energy show on a steamy Sunday night at Jones Beach that, at times, walked a tight line between self parody and good, old fashioned rock and roll. Make no mistake, Santana is still a master of guitar pyrotechnics running the gamut from fluid runs up and down the fret board to dissonant shredding on his signature Paul Reed Smith. It is a privilege to witness this alone, surely worth the price of admission especially when you factor in the polished backing band that accompanies him these days. However, there were many times during the set that the musicianship on display was accompanied by slick posturing that one wouldn’t expect out of Santana and the myriad talented musicians in his band. One left impressed by the talent on display and wondering if the shtick is a harbinger of things to come for the aging rock demigod.
The band came on stage promptly at 9:00 to appreciative applause from the not quite sold out crowd. The smattering of empty orchestra seats contrasted with the fully sold out middle section is surely a sign of the times as was the offering of $10 seats for the upcoming Jonas Brothers and Maroon 5 concerts. Wasting no time, they launched into a tightly wound version of “Yaleo” from 1999’s Supernatural. The relentless backbeat provided by the triumvirate of Raul Rekow, Karl Perazzo and Dennis Chambers on congas, percussion and drums respectively was the band’s secret weapon and their strength throughout the night. Combined with the searing lead guitar of Santana it served as the formula that made versions of Guajira, Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va the highlights of the nearly two hour set. That formula also served as the tonic for the Vegas-esque slickness that was sprinkled throughout the set and was what ultimately prevented the band from fully hurtling over the line from great rock band to parody of a great rock band.
It is worth bearing in mind that the two big events coming up for Santana bear witness to the commercial rock leanings of Santana circa 2010. First up is the September 21st release of Guitar Heaven, The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time an album of classic rock covers, with guests ranging from Rob Thomas to India.Arie to Yo Yo Ma. Whether an album of covers like AC/DC’s “Back in Black” featuring Nas or “Photograph” by Def Leppard featuring Daughtry speaks to your taste or not is for you to decide but it is surely a sign of a conscious decision to continue to pursue the more commercial success that has been the hallmark of his career resurgence since the late 90’s. In the lead up to the release the band will land in Las Vegas for an eight night stand at the Hard Rock under the title “Supernatural, A Trip through the Hits.”
At different moments during the show it was tough not to have these two tidbits of information in the back of your mind making you question whether what you were seeing was pure rock or an over produced spectacle of rock. Santana proselytizing for long periods at the beginning and end of the set about the human composition being made entirely of love and light, or his love for the way a woman curls her toes mid orgasm or how Woodstock (where he played for the first time since 1969 the night before) is the ground zero for peace and love came off in a bizarre fashion. It was a moment like keyboardist Freddie Ravel falling to the ground during his solos, literally kneeling down as he reached the upper registers of his keyboard, his face lit up on the video screens adjacent to the stage in a slightly pained expression that made you question intent. The anticipated shots of his toes curling never materialized. Dennis Chambers feigning boredom during an admittedly impressive drum solo, chugging a bottle of water while egging on the crowd and, in the process, letting his showmanship take precedence over his substantial chops. Maybe more symptomatic was the “Wanna be Starting Something” coda to “Jingo” reminding you of the way the equally well drilled bands of late 80’s era Frank Zappa used to slip in “Stayin Alive” quotes in “Inca Roads” but without any hint of the irony that was Zappa’s hallmark. The final blow was the inclusion of “Dance The Night Away,” a longtime the Van Halen cover (the original didn’t even have a real guitar solo) and the connection to David Lee Roth’s lounge lizard routine is just too easy to mention.
Somehow the two guest appearances didn’t add to the Vegas revue feel. Early in the set the Product G and B reprised their role on “Maria, Maria” helping the band to navigate through the rap/latin rock hybrid. Steve Winwood shared the stage with Santana for the first time this tour during a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Right On” scat singing along to some nimble leads from Santana.
The final third of the set began with a straight reading of “Evil Ways” and followed with “A Love Supreme”, Santana’s interpretation of the John Coltrane classic culled from his 1971 collaboration with John Mclaughlin titled Love, Devotion, Surrender. The closing duo of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Smooth” were handled with aplomb by vocalists Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay.
Driving the dichotomy of the evening home during the encore the band began with a welcome “Soul Sacrifice” while footage of his performance at Woodstock played on the video screen behind the band. Inexplicably about five minutes into the song the band ground to a halt and a giant dove appeared on the video screen to the sounds of operatic church music. At this point I half expected someone to come out with a long white cape, and drape it over a kneeling Santana to usher him off the stage. Instead the band wove the chorus of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” through the closing stanza of the final song bringing the night to a somewhat appropriate end.
Steve Winwood opened the evening with a solid set. One of the iconic vocalists of the classic rock era it is truly incredible how well his voice has held up over his 40 year plus career. Close your eyes and you can picture the teenage Winwood belting out “Gimme Some Lovin” with the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood and his four piece band touched on every era of his long career starting out with some of his more recent works, the highlight of which was “Dirty City” from 2008’s Nine Lives. The requisite “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” segued smoothly into “Empty Pages”. Equally at home with a guitar strapped on as he is behind the Hammond b-3 Winwood lead a pared down power trio for “Dear Mr. Fantasy” before closing the set with “Gimme Some Lovin” accompanied by the four piece band.