In the three years the late great rock impresario Bill Graham presented concerts at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, he provided more of a service than just filling up a couple open nights of the week at the summer home of the Boston Symphony. He was reaffirming the viability of rock shows as public events and performances of their own distinct character.. To his great credit, Graham did so without compromising the quality of the presentations at the comparably-sized venues he operated (until 1971) on both the east and west coasts. Hence the title of the series “The Fillmore at Tanglewood.”
The August 18, 1970 bill was particularly representative of Graham’s taste in music as well as his predilection to stretch the boundaries of the audiences’ taste (and, last but not least, try to appeal to a diverse demographic). Hence, The Voices of East Harlem opened the show, followed by Miles Davis with one of his electric lineups, culminating in a more extended set by Santana. The three acts presented a progressively intense experience for the capacity audience, within the shed and across the lawn outside: the often angelic vocalizing of VEH gave way to the deep dark grooves of Miles and his ensemble (recorded to be released many years later as part of a deluxe 40th anniversary reissue of Bitches Brew), while Santana built on the already charged atmosphere to develop a ferocious momentum all their own.
It’s ever so rare to catch a band on the rise exactly at the point it breaks through to a mass audience and even more unusual to witness the band itself performing as if it knows it’s on such a crucial threshold. But at the time of this show, Santana had spent the better part of a year not just building not just on on the word of mouth generated from Woodstock, but also maximizing an elevated profile based on their prominence in the festival movie released in the spring of 1970. During that period too, Santana had been also recording their sophomore album, Abraxas, and its release in the month following this appearance, would catapult them to mass popularity.
Given the intensity of their playing at Tanglewood this late summer evening, the group was ready and waiting for the acclamation, their zeal in offering selections from the eponymous debut equaled by the palpable excitement they also felt in offering as yet unreleased songs (including a couple like “Batuka” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture”) that wouldn’t appear until Santana III). In turn, the attendees who ended up in exactly the kind of frenzy the music was intended to incite.
The delay in finding a suitable chair for Alberto Gianquinto to seat himself at the grand piano for the comparatively quiet instrumental “Incident at Neshabur” was thus a fortuitous break in the ever-escalating wave of rabid response the band’s namesake and his comrades were generating just half-way into their single set. At this point, ‘Santana’ meant not just the guitarist, but the group of six musicians, fused as a unit as seamlessly as the music they played; integrating rock, blues and Latin styles.
As the septet alternated numbers from the first album, such as “Savor” and “Jingo,” with those (now bonafide classics) of equal impact from the yet-to-be-released sophomore album, like “Black Magic Woman”/”Gypsy Queen” and “Oye Como Va,” those under the roof of the shed or out on the lawn may or may not have like they were at a festival or in a movie but experiencing something better altogether: bearing witness to one of the great rock bands of its time coming of age.