Conventional wisdom says that audiences will mutiny if you don’t give ‘em all the hits, but this crowd danced all the way through Carlos Santana’s eclectic setlist.
By Brett Milano
Carlos Santana’s got something that most classic-era rockers would kill for: An audience that comes to hear him play music, not bring back memories. Golden oldies were in short supply at the guitar master’s sold-out show at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion this week, which featured one of the more eclectic setlists to come from a veteran band in memory. During a two-and-a-half hour show, Santana and his ten-piece band did surprise covers, unrecorded songs, deep album tracks, and just a few hits (taken as much from 1999’s comeback smash Supernatural as from the old albums). The conventional wisdom says that audiences will mutiny if you don’t give ‘em all the hits, but this crowd danced all the way through.
The show opened with its only real nostalgic move, as the “Rain Chant” footage from the Woodstock movie segued into a live rendition of the 1969 nugget “Soul Sacrifice,” just as it did in the film. But that in turn segued into a song that the audience (mostly of the white Woodstock demographic) probably didn’t know: “Saideira,” a carnival groove by the Brazilian band Skank that was a Latin hit around 2000 (and never recorded by Santana). More covers came at set’s end, just when you expected the Santana oldies. Instead you got the posthumous Michael Jackson hit “A Place With No Name” and the Champs’ frathouse standard “Tequila,” updated with horn solos and Spanish lyrics. One thing Santana didn’t touch was the album he’s supposedly promoting. Last year’s Corazon is officially his first Latin album — meaning modern Latin pop, not the usual Latin rock — but though he played other tracks in that style, he left the LP alone.
Santana’s made some recent missteps on disc, getting too far into computerized modern production and becoming a guest on his own albums. But since it’s all played live onstage, the modern pop and hip-hop moves (including a three-song feature by his son Salvador, a singer and keyboardist) co-exist peacefully with the vintage tracks. Likewise, he carries his hippie-ish sensibility into everything he does: As the band played a bit of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Santana namechecked the songs that he thought brought the world to a higher consciousness (that one plus “What’s Going On,” “One Love” and “Imagine”). So his rap-influenced songs all carried positive messages; “Freedom In Your Mind” and “Love Makes the World Go Round” (both new, unrecorded songs) were suitably uplifting. You don’t get the impression that he was first in line to see Straight Outta Compton.
If the songs and the faces onstage weren’t all familiar, the sound certainly was. This modern version of the Santana band (bassist Benny Rietveld, in since 1990, was the longest-serving member) had all the trademarks in place: A keyboardist who favored the gritty Hammond organ sound, and a three-piece percussion section that was in hyperspeed at all times (like clockwork, the timbales and congas always accelerated to punctuate the organ and guitar solos). As always, Santana’s guitar style is impossible to miss: he can still dazzle with flamenco-like speed, but the instrumental “Europa” (the only song drawn from his ‘70s jazz-fusion period) brought out his lyrical/spiritual side. In an amusing moment he let a fan upfront strum his guitar during a later solo, and kept motioning for the guy to play faster.
He hauled out the hits at the end, closing the set with “Smooth” (where Rob Thomas wasn’t missed; bandmembers Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay sang it fine) and encoring with the familiar “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen/Oye Como Va” medley (plus the lesser-known “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a fiery jam from the third album in 1971). But this show was really about Santana’s vision of music as a unifying, global jukebox. And you could dance to all of it.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.