The first time I saw Santana was opening a Grateful Dead gig in Vegas back in 1991, and while I entered the show having never seen either band, I left feeling Santana was the better live act.
I saw better Dead shows in the following years, but never saw Santana again until the band headlined a sold-out show Tuesday night at Red Butte Garden. And while I wouldn't say Santana was as good as I remember, there was little mistaking the potency of the band's live show even all these years later.
Carlos Santana used his still-impressive guitar to lead a 10-piece band of percussionists, horns and singers through more than two hours of lengthy instrumental excursions and dives into some of the classic American rock songbook.
I was pleasantly surprised at Santana and Co.'s early run through some older classics, from "Everybody's Everything" from the band's 1971 self-titled release to a one-two punch of "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen" and "Oye Como Va." Even if the man's exaggerated guitar workouts aren't your thing, there's no denying the ability of "Oye Como Va" to get a crowd moving. And move it did, the audience staying on its feet throughout the early burst of favorites.
"Maria Maria" from Santana's 1999 mega-comeback album Supernatural proved just as winning for the crowd, and "Foo Foo" gave co-vocalists Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas the chance to engage the crowd, beckoning the audience to wave its hands, or jump to the beat throughout the song. Both singers were competent at best, lacking the personality of the band's namesake as they delivered a slew of hits they didn't have a hand in recording. That's a thankless task--but upon watching and listening to them early in the show, I jotted in my notes: "No one here paid for the singers."
They did, though, pay for Carlos Santana to blow their minds, and he did his best to deliver. "Corazon Espinado" (with a dash of "I Like It Like That") was a highlight, leading into a lengthy jam in which Carlos Santana allowed his massive band to take turns with solos before he led the back into what a called "a new song"--a cover of "Tequila." The follow-up jam touched on the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a song he'd teased early in the set, before the band launched into a full-bodied "Evil Ways" (complete with an aside into War's "Spill the Wine").
Carlos Santana let the music do the talking for the most part all night long, before encouraging the crowd to "turn off the TV because most of the time it's just stupid shit. Not very elevating, or inspiring."
A few seconds of the crowd chanting "light" and "love" led the bandleader into his monster late-career hit "Smooth" and oldie "Soul Sacrifice" in an encore featuring band introductions and brief excursions into songs like Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" and The Police's "Roxanne."
The two-plus-hours flew by, and the long day of rain was well gone by the time Santana took the stage at 7:30 p.m. By 10, the crowd was spent and satisfied by nearly two-dozen songs of remarkable playing by Santana and his band. If lengthy jams and dance-friendly songs aren't your thing, the Santana show was probably not what you were looking for Tuesday night.
For most on hand, though, it was exactly what they were hoping for when they put down money for the most expensive Red Butte show of the summer--a high-energy mix of hits and experimental excursions led by a true legend who still can play like few others.