Santana and The Wailers, Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA- 3/25
To some people, Santana might not seem to fit into the jam band category, especially in light of their recent overwhelming commercial success with the Supernatural album. A music scene that prides itself on being an underground, grassroots phenomenon often has mixed feelings when it comes to embracing a band that has achieved mainstream success. Besides, Santana's music has never been easy to fit into any one category, considering how many different styles are synthesized within its trademark sound. Santana is a rock band, a Latin band, a pop sensation, a jazz combo, a comeback story, and many more things all wrapped up in one classic package. But above all else, Santana JAMS, and this show proved that they still possess that hunger for improvisation that draws us all to this kind of music.
As I walked into Philips Arena on what would otherwise be a normal Monday night, the first thing I heard was a powerful version of Exodus. Knowing that Santana has been known to play the Bob Marley classic, my initial reaction was "Oh no! I've missed the beginning of Santana's set!" Instead, I was delighted to find that The Wailers were a last-minute addition as opening band. The reggae legends ran through a crowd-pleasing string of Marley favorites, culminating with a great version of Jammin' that lived up to its title.
The show proper started off strong with a great version of Freedom, an untitled track from Supernatural that is the best song on that album, in my opinion. Carlos wasted no time in showing that he came to play, using a metal slide gizmo to create otherworldly noises and and exhibiting crisp chops with no sign of rust. The dazzling runs, the single-note sustain, the hummingbird trills—Carlos had all of his trademark skills going on from the outset.
The first half of this show was dominated by new material, and considering Santana's vast back catalog of rock classics, it is a testament to the current vitality of the band that the show didn't suffer because of it. A couple of pop nuggets from Supernatural, Love of My Life and Put Your Lights On, benefitted greatly from the soulful vocals of Tony Lindsay, whom I prefer to Dave Matthews or Everlast any day. However, much of the first half of the show was composed of songs that will apparently be on an upcoming album. I didn't get the names of some songs, but they all sounded strong.
One song that deserves special praise is apparently called Let's Have Some Fun. This very Latin-flavored number has a great stop-start arrangement that drove the crowd into a frenzy, with every member of the band getting a chance to step out and "have some fun." By the time the song was over, the crowd had caught on to its catchy structure and was having a lot of fun as well. While the song was fairly simple, it was undeniably irresistible, and the vibe it projected was infectious.
Which brings me to the inevitable debate over whether Santana has "sold out." I suppose if Carlos didn't want to be accused of that crime, he should have stayed as far away from Rob Thomas as possible. But if you think about it, Santana's music has always been accessible to the masses. It has a high spiritual component, and musicianship enough to satisfy any music snob, but it also has a physical appeal that anyone can appreciate. Even if Supernatural does represent a step in a pop direction, it also shows Carlos getting back in touch with his roots. It's not his fault that the music of his native culture happens to be catchy, upbeat, and highly dance-oriented.
Like Africa Bamba, for example. This tune from Supernatural is fairly radio-friendly, but it is also a cool song with a great groove. Tonight it was given an extended workout, with the horn section really getting a chance to flex their muscle. Karl Perazzo, who wrote the tune, was impressive on percussion and vocals and drove the rest of the band through a free-flowing exit jam that provided the first really hot improv of the night.
I was reminded again and again that one of the reasons for Carlos' resurgence is his outstanding taste in musicians. The core group of Perazzo, Lindsay, conga player Raul Rekow, bassist Benny Rietveld, and keyboard player Chester Thompson has been playing together for some ten years now. They are all outstanding musicians, any one of whom would be the lead soloist in most bands. Even more important, they play together with the telepathic tightness that only familiarity can provide. Although Carlos is clearly the star of the show, this is clearly a band, with every member getting a chance to contribute.
Following an impressive percussion duet featuring Rekow and Perazzo, Yaleo gave the band another chance to get their Latin groove on. This sort of high-energy, percussion-driven song provides the perfect backdrop for savage, explosive guitar riffs. The thing that always strikes me about Carlos’ playing is the passion he pours into every note. A new instrumental called Victory Is Won was perhaps the night’s best example of this. Carlos took the audience’s breath away by leading the band to a heart-stopping climax, only to stop on a dime. This dynamic, textural piece is sure to be a highlight of the new album.
Maria Maria was another poppy offering from Supernatural, and possibly the only song I could have done without. Whereas some hit singles were remade into jamfests, this stayed pretty close to the original version. However, this was quickly redeemed by a powerful version of Make Somebody Happy, which begins with a pretty ballad section that features matchless tone and tasty licks by Carlos. Just when everyone had been lulled into complacency, the band suddenly kicked into overdrive, igniting the crowd with a James Brown-style funk/soul rave-up. The band then left the stage in the capable hands of Dennis Chambers, who got a standing ovation for a great drum solo. When the “new guy” is the legendary drummer for Weather Report, what could have been a weakness becomes a strength.
At this point, Santana had kicked the audience’s collective ass for a good hour and a half without playing a song that was more than ten years old. While this was impressive, the opening notes of Black Magic Woman brought the crowd screaming to its feet in recognition. For years, the BMW/Gypsy Queen/Oye Como Va triad has been a match made in heaven, like Mike’s/Hydrogen/Weekapaug for Phish or Help/Slip/Franklin’s for the Dead. Moving from deep blues to acid flamenco to Tito Puente, it encompasses all that is righteous and good about Santana.
This version featured a dramatic and powerful Gypsy Queen jam with Third Stone From The Sun teases. The raw intensity of a good Gypsy Queen is something any jam lover should experience at least once in their lifetime. Even so, it was overshadowed by the best Oye Como Va I’ve heard. It strayed much further from the theme than usual, with the horns setting up a catchy riff that could be made into a whole new song. The inspired looseness of this jam delighted the audience and turned Philips Arena into the world’s biggest Latin dance party. As the band left the stage, the applause was deafening.
A Smooth encore might look disappointing on paper, and to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled at first. But as with many other songs tonight, they jammed it out almost beyond recognition. I couldn’t help but smile at the befuddled looks on the faces of the trendy as they busted into a smoking-hot vamp section that is completely absent from the album version. Even when he is playing his biggest hit single in years, Carlos is incapable of playing it safe, constantly challenging the audience to keep up.
The capper of the evening was a powerhouse version of Jingo, from the very first Santana album. This traditional African groove was packed with raw percussive power and screaming guitar fireworks, absolutely on fire from start to finish. Overall, this wasn’t the best Santana show I’ve seen, but it was damn good. Packed with energy and great playing, there were very few slack moments and plenty of jaw-dropping displays of jam wizardry. This is a vital, creative band at the very top of their game, and to dismiss them because they are popular is to miss out on one of the best live bands around.