Carlos Santana first exploded into the public consciousness with his searing performance at the original Woodstock in 1969. Adding touches of Latin and African styles into psychedelic rock and roll, Santana played with a fiery, passionate intensity not unlike that of Jimi Hendrix, and if you watch his set in the documentary on the fabled festival, it is arguably the finest performance of that weekend. Now 67, Santana has come a long way from Woodstock, winning 10 Grammy’s and selling millions of records after high-profile collaborations with mainstream pop acts like Rob Thomas and CeeLo Green, among many others. However, despite his numerous forays into the mainstream – no matter how cheesy – Carlos Santana is still that same possessed lover of music capable of guitar wizardry unlike any other. This is what you take away from the Santana live show, which hit Austin’s ACL Moody Theater on Saturday night.
For two and a half hours Santana and his band – which includes no less than three drummers/percussionists, two singers, one trumpet and one trombone player, a rhythm guitarist, and an organist – indulged the sold out audience in the exact manner a legend of such stature should. Sure, the big contemporary hits like “Maria, Maria” and “Smooth” were played, but the guitarist didn’t simply wallow in nostalgia through straightforward cuts of his well-known tunes. Instead, the band exploded out of the gate with a huge organ solo and a full on display of their musical prowess with the energetic salsa blast of “Toussaint L’Overture.” The momentum never slowed down throughout a whirlwind set that saw old favorites like “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va” placed alongside fun tunes like the band’s take on The Champs’ rowdy classic “Tequila.”
No matter how many times the band has probably played this exact setlist, each song sounded freshly reworked into spontaneous, unpredictable jams. Santana allowed the band members to shine on their own, but remained front and center with his kaleidoscopic, eruptive playing and soaring, orgasmic solos. In fact, it was Santana who seemed to be having more fun than anybody as he exchanged light-hearted banter about peace, love and the San Antonio Spurs with the audience. His enjoyment came across in the songs as well when he playfully teased timeless riffs from the Animals, the Beatles and Hendrix in the middle of the jam. One of the highlights of the night came when Santana sat down next to organ player David Matthews for a slowed down blues instrumental that saw him channeling the spirit of the late Austin blues god Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As far as living legends go, few acts can top the show Santana puts on. In Austin there was no sense that he is simply going through the motions to keep his legacy alive and sell tickets, but rather that he savors his time onstage and truly enjoys every moment he gets to play. Even in his elder years Santana approaches playing music with youthful ambivalence. His show on Saturday left the audience in awe over the realization that it is still possible to experience one of the titans of American rock music in such a way that feels anything but stale.
Photos by Suzanne Cordeiro