by a tight band featuring alumni of P-Funk, Prince, Miles Davis and Dizzy
Gillespie, the guitar maestro polishes off an 11-night residency at The Joint
at the Hard Rock & Hotel & Casino on Feb. 20.
By Hal Bienstock
Santana’s 1999 comeback album, Supernatural, which has just been reissued in an expanded 20th anniversary edition, was a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it
brought him to a larger audience than he’d had in decades. But it also
positioned him as a pop star, a role a person with his musical ambition would
never feel completely comfortable with.
Ever since then, Santana has tried to walk the line between giving
new fans hits like “Smooth” and “Maria Maria,” pleasing classic rock-heads with
“Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” and giving himself the space to explore
jazz, Latin music, reggae, R&B and Sinatra-style standards.
Even his current band reflects the dichotomy. A quick look
at their credits reveals people who’ve played alongside Miles Davis, Prince and
Dizzy Gillespie sharing the stage with others who point to working with Jon
Secada and Gloria Estefan as career highlights.
This can create a sense of dissonance. On this night, Santana
and his tight and versatile band, anchored by drummer Dennis Chambers (formerly
of Parliament/Funkadelic) and bassist Benny Rietveld, blazed through an array
of styles, at various times nodding to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Bob Marley and John
Coltrane. But their impressive work was occasionally undone by a pair of
vocalists, who while technically proficient, have an almost complete lack of
soul or grit. At times, it was like watching one of the world’s best bands backing
up singers at a karaoke bar.
Fortunately, vocals never mattered much in Santana’s music.
And Carlos himself was on top of his game as he wrapped up an 11-night stand at
the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. (He returns for another run of eight shows
beginning on April 21). Just when a song like “Aye Aye Aye/Para Los Rumberos”
or “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” was about to dip into Vegas lounge
territory, he’d take over with a fiery solo, contorting his body and showing
why he’s earned his status as a living legend.
If Santana’s live show today lacks some of the raw power of
his late ‘60s/early ‘70s heyday, he makes up for it with pure mastery. The ten
minutes of “Soul Sacrifice” that kicked off the encore are practically worth
the price of admission alone, especially when you consider that you could lose
twice that much at the blackjack table in that amount of time. And it sure
beats the hell out of a night with Celine Dion or The Lion King.