Santana and Rusted Root, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 8/11
Santana’s remarkable career began in 1968. It’s hard to believe that almost thirty-five years later the band is still surging ahead with great ferocity, as they continue to create their own brand of new and vivid exploratory music. Anyone among the extremely diverse group of 20,000 fans who showed up to Saratoga Performing Arts Center, expecting the band to put on a greatest hits package was in for quite the surprise. The eleven-piece band delivered a unique and varied set of music that demonstrated both the band’s history and more notably their vitality and importance on today’s music scene.
The band actually opened the show with the future of Santana on full display. The Saratoga show was the first on this tour to include three new songs from the their upcoming fall release Shaman. The first third of the show was dominated by a heavy jazzy Latin sound. They opened the show minus their leader Carlos Santana. The band began by playing a little jazzy number called "Miles Intro". As they played, Santana himself strolled onto the stage, with his trusted guitar by his side. After observing the band for a moment Santana began ripping in, as the band went right in to "Adouma". The band then debuted two of the new songs "Truth Don Die", and "Aye, Aye, Aye", in succession. These songs would seem indicate that the next Santana album will continue to dig down deep and explore their Latin music roots.
The first third of the show enabled Carlos to demonstrate his skills in different Latin styles. He would alternate styles quite frequently, as he would smoothly go from Mariachi, to Flamenco, and then back to searing rock and jazz licks. Santana nimbly went back and forth, from playing an electric guitar to a stationed acoustic, often in the same solo. Santana showed why he is considered a guitar God, as every solo he took was fluid, and technically proficient. Santana had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the get go, as they showered him with thunderous ovations after every solo. The band used other tactics to try and get the crowd going even further. Their dual lead singers Andy Vargas, and Tony Lindsay patrolled the stage and shouted like emcees at a hip-hop show. I found this tactic totally unnecessary, as the crowd was already all on their feet, and going at full steam. All the shouting seemed to do was distract people from the driving grooves, being produced by the band. The Latin section of the show gave both the three-piece percussion section and the two-piece horn section a real chance to show their stuff. Highlights from the Latin influenced section included a hard rocking "Foo, Foo", and "Day of Celebration", which contained probably the best guitar solo of the night, as Santana did his best Hendrix impression going all out, as he alternated between explosive fret work and searing slide riffs.
Works from the Supernatural album dominated the second section of the show. The band used "Maria, Maria" as a bridge to take them from the Latin section to the section with the Supernatural material. I never really cared for this song, but I think out of all the Supernatural material performed, this song worked the best. The band was able to open the song up and really jam on it, once again utilizing their strong percussion and horn sections. The weakest of the Supernatural songs performed was "Put Your Lights On". In this live version the vocals lacked the grittiness that made it such a powerful song on the album. Without a doubt the highlight of this section of the show was the phenomenal drum solo delivered by Dennis Chambers, during "Yaleo". Chambers is considered one of the greatest jazz drummers ever. He demonstrated his ability during his ten-minute solo, in which he showed a tremendous deal of range around the kit, along with ferocious power in pounding the skins. The crowd was totally ecstatic following the solo. I was surprised that they followed this high point with the extremely mellow "Love of My Life". The band then went on to debut, "One of These Days", from the Shaman album. "Put Your Lights On", then a soaring version of "Africa Bamba", followed that.
Carlos Santana tried to live up to the title of his upcoming album, as he attempted to play the role of Shaman several times during the show. The first time was when he recited the Hebrew prayer proclaiming, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts". He recited the prayer in both Hebrew and English, as the words were posted on the screen behind him. Later on after "Africa Bamba", Carlos halted the show to have a five-minute discussion on spirituality. During this period he also addressed the crowd about how people should treat each other, as well as saying prayers for both human kind and humanity. He prefaced this all by assuring the crowd that, "we are not sell outs man, we’re left over hippies from the sixties". The band followed the spirituality seminar with a with a new world feel good medley consisting of "Make Somebody Happy/Right On Be Free/Get It In Your Soul". The last part of the medley contained a long bass solo by Benny Rietveld, which also managed to conjure up the ideals of the sixties as Rietveld ended the solo by playing Bob Dylan’s "Blowing in the Wind".
I know that Carlos Santana is a very spiritual person in his everyday life, and I do not mean to question his sincerity. This being said however, on stage it comes off as a little forced and performed, and not genuine. Two good examples of this were, first, at one point Carlos invited the audience to conjure up spirits of loved ones, and he started reciting names. Now I have no problem with this, I just found it odd that after he mentioned deceased artists such as Miles Davis, Santana continued to conjure up the spirits of people who were still alive (such as John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham). Secondly, after the bass solo Carlos stepped right in to a transcendental type instrumental called "Apache", which was a beautiful piece of music. As he played, the screen behind displayed different Native American images further evoking the spiritual ambiance. I happen to think this was a strong part of the show, but what bothered me was that Apache segued right into "Smooth", arguably the biggest radio hit of the band’s career (definitely their biggest hit in the last 25 years). I happen to like this song, but I found the juxtaposition to be a little odd. On one hand the band is delving into a well of spirituality, then on the other hand they are playing a Nineties radio hit dealing with a "Spanish-Harlem Mona Lisa". The song though really energized the crowd, and Carlos and keyboardist Chester Thompson dueled it out, exchanging hard-hitting riffs with each other.
The band concluded the show with some of the stronger songs from the beginning of their career. They played an epic version of "Black Magic Women", which to me was twice as spiritual than anything that Santana had talked about earlier. The band combined "Black Magic Women" with "Gypsy Queen". During his solo in "Gypsy Queen", Carlos teased "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, which delighted the crowd, and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by Yes, which I think confused the crowd. "Oye ComoVa", got the band going once again on a hard Latin beat. The band kept the Latin flavor going, with a long rousing version of "Jingo", which ended the show.
All in all, the show was quite strong. Carlos Santana is with out a doubt one of the best guitarist I have seen. Other than Eric Clapton, he is probably the most proficient technical player you will find playing rock music. What amazed me most was, the myriad of styles he displayed during the show, and how effortlessly he and the band flowed from one to another. The rest of the band consisted of basically an all-star musician on every instrument, and each got ample time to strut their stuff. I also applaud the band for not simply relying on their storied past. The band is still truly exploring new musical avenues, and while not everything worked, such as the hip-hop stuff sounding a little forced. I do believe all the attempts were noble, and I am truly excited to see what the band has in store for us in the future (especially if they can keep this lineup of musicians together). The only complaints I had was that, they could have played a couple more older tunes ("Soul Sacrifice" and "Evil Ways" most notably), and I really did not enjoy some of the vocals. I thought Tony Lindsay had a good voice and did a good job, but there were definitely stretches, where I found Andy Vargas to be an annoying stage presence, I found him almost to be a parody of a Latin Singer at times. But these few flaws did little to curb my enjoyment of the show.
Opening the show was Rusted Root. Although I usually enjoy them, their were some hindrances which definitely flawed this set. First the forty minutes that the band had, limited them from opening things up and really jamming. All the songs were pretty standard, with the exception of an extraordinary high tempo "Ecstasy", which closed the set. Secondly Jenn Wertz, and Liz Berlin were not mixed very well and it was hard to hear their vocals. These two factors made it hard to really enjoy this set, as to me is was more like a tease or hint of what could have been delivered from the Root. This being said though Rusted Root did manage to keep the crowd dancing through out the set.