Carlos Santana dedicates his concerts to the “archangel” Michael Jackson. He addresses his hit “Maria Maria” to all the women in the audience. He instructs them: “Look in the mirror and say: ‘I am light and I am love.’”
The New Age chanting contrasts with Santana’s failed attempt to match the macho carnality of Led Zeppelin. He tries an ill-advised cover of “Whole Lotta Love,” a track off his “Guitar Heaven” album released last month. Santana is promoting the CD with a tour that started in Ireland and the U.K. -- the London O2 arena show is typical -- before moving to mainland Europe and the U.S.
Take away the stage chat at the opening shows, and Santana, 63, is still at the top of his game. It is still the same game, the one that he practically invented: classic 1960s rock and smooth, radio friendly songs fired up with Latin rhythms.
In 2010, Santana sounds as fresh as he did more than 40 years ago to the pioneering rock audience of 400,000 who gathered at Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York. The Mexican-born, San Francisco-based guitarist has had a Top 10 album in every decade since the 1960s, sold more than 80 million records, won 10 Grammy awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Santana’s guitar playing is endlessly inquisitive. He enjoys inserting as many musical gobbets as possible: up pops Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” “Blue Moon” appears in the cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Forays into Santana’s middle-of-the-road pop side are less successful. Songs from his 1999, 27-million selling comeback album “Supernatural” sound as vacuously smooth as a high-end moisturizer commercial.
Still, audiences of dedicated fans get a 2½-hour fiery set packed with hits. It’s neither an exercise in nostalgia nor a case of an elder statesman of rock resting on his laurels.
Drummer Dennis Chambers is a samba powerhouse while percussionists Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow send rhythmic fireworks bouncing off the walls. The band, after 15 minutes of increasing exuberance, lurches into the stripped down cha-cha-cha of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va.” The proto-disco afro groove “Jingo,” from Santana’s self-titled debut LP, is similarly electric.
Santana is no longer cool. He comes over as an old hippie in fedora and white-linen top decorated with swirling African and Aztec designs, spouting quaint ideals, the tunes slipping a little too smoothly into the mainstream. Yet, when he picks up his guitar, his music can still shine as brightly as it did at that mythologized festival field back in 1969.
Santana plays Antwerp, Belgium, tonight. His tour includes dates in Germany, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Norway before moving to the U.S. in November. Information: http://www.santana.com/tour/default.aspx
“Guitar Heaven: Santana Performs the Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” (Arista Records) is priced about $9.99, and 7.99 pounds in the U.K. Download prices vary across services.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)