Concert Review: Santana — Wizardry on Display
By Paul Robicheau
The 76-year-old Carlos Santana didn’t need to dominate with guitar showmanship to make his two-hour-plus concert fly without any lag in energy and spirit.
“The only thing people are going to remember is how you make them feel,” Carlos Santana told Friday’s crowd at MGM Music Hall at Fenway, paraphrasing a quote from poet Maya Angelou. And indeed, fans were feeling good in the first of two nights at the theater-size club, an intimate venue to catch the guitar marvel who has sent hearts soaring over five decades since he erupted onstage at Woodstock.
But people who focus on the unmistakable tone, string-bent sustains, and speedy trills in Santana’s playing — on display in surprisingly contained bursts throughout the night — might forget the perennial greatness of his namesake band as well.
That ensemble power was on full display at MGM Fenway, where the 76-year-old Santana didn’t need to dominate with guitar showmanship to make his two-hour-plus concert fly without any lag in energy and spirit. His eight-piece supporting cast proved more than capable in assuming solo space, particularly keyboardist David K. Mathews, timbales sparkplug Karl Perazzo (part of Santana’s patented three-part percussion engine since 1991) and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, whose volcanic drive rivaled the virtuosity of predecessors like Michael Shrieve and Dennis Chambers as the most dynamic element in her husband’s band.
The percussion section roared from the start as the group broke out Woodstock calling card “Soul Sacrifice” and “Jingo,” where Santana put aside his guitar to raise shakers and blow a whistle as a mere conductor. A relatively calmer “Evil Ways” followed to complete a trifecta from Santana’s 1969 debut, setting up a lengthy chronological flight through his vaunted ’70s repertoire with a segued “Black Magic Woman,” “Gypsy Queen” (the guitarist weaving in a tease of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun”), and crowd-pleasing bop “Oye Como Va.”
A bigger surprise arrived with the surging Latin effervescence of an extended “Everybody’s Everything,” where Mathews mimicked its horns on synth before a robust organ solo and the potent tag-team of singers Andy Vargas and Boston’s own Ray Greene led fans in call-and-response shoutouts of “Get ready! Uhh!” Rhythm guitarist Tommy Anthony took the crying solo played on record by Neal Schon (later of Journey) and bassist Benny Reitveld capped it off with a fiercely thumbed and strummed solo that slid into a drag race with Blackman Santana.
After that wow moment, Carlos Santana paused for the first in a few philosophical talks that prompted some quizzical faces in the crowd, deriding the hell-bound sinner mentality of the Catholic Church as “Godzilla religion” while promoting individuality, compassion, kindness, mercy, and happiness. Then he dropped into the famous, soulful guitar hum of “Europa” before the glorious ’70s hour closed out with a pairing of “Batuka” (Perazzo’s conversational cowbells leading to heavy guitar chords) and “No One to Depend On,” led by the dual vocalists.
Before Santana turned the switch to pop hits from his ’90s resurgence, however, he went on an extended introduction. He credited younger guitarists from H.E.R. to Derek Trucks as “badasses” and noted that, unlike players a few blocks away at Berklee, he and Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton all went to the school of Buddy Guy. “He was the first guy who put turbo on the blues.”
With that, Santana brought out local Buddy Guy protégé Quinn Sullivan, now 24, for the first of two rounds of classic rock ‘n’ soul covers that (for better or worse) filled a third of the show. But it churned up enough variety to balance hits from the wake of 1999’s Supernatural, which won nine Grammys. First on tap was the fiery take on the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” where Sullivan served an overly deliberate solo. But, by the time the band segued into “Spill the Wine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the young guitarist was carving more snarly phrases in tradeoffs with Santana.
Alas, the master opted for another monologue, a topically tinged ramble where Santana defended truth (“There are no alternatives”) and supported his daughter for an outburst in school (yes, Catholic) over the idea that Eve came from Adam’s rib. “The only way to come out on the planet is through a woman,” Santana said.
Finally, for those who wanted less talk and more (familiar) music, it was time for “Put Your Lights On,” capably sung by backup guitarist Anthony while candles on the huge video screen behind the band were echoed on cellphones in the crowd. The hit parade was in full swing, with the once-seated crowd dancing along to “Corazon Espinado” and “Maria Maria,” where Santana’s turns on a mounted acoustic guitar seemed lost amid a cluttered arrangement and video of dancing African children as part of the evening’s constantly flashing light show. While it made the show arena-ready (amid shared closeups of the musicians on the big screen), it occasionally overpowered the MGM setting.
Minutes into the encore, Blackman Santana overpowered in a good way with a ferocious five-minute drum solo. “She makes it look easy,” her husband glowed, but warned fans that such playing requires the devotion, dedication, discipline, and diet of a world-class athlete. If you don’t have “the 4 D’s,” Santana said, you will “pass out.” For his part, over the course of the show, Santana briefly sat on a stool a few times, clearly not about to approach his wife’s stamina.
Sullivan was onboard for a final encore round that included the funky “Doing It to Death” and a rambunctious “Roadhouse Blues” before Blackman Santana and Perazzo perfectly transitioned into the mega-hit “Smooth.” And with a wave to fans, Santana walked behind a bank of smoke geysers like a departing wizard.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.