THE excitement actually began around three weeks ago, when I first heard that Carlos Santana would be playing in Bangalore on October 26. Instantly, I decided to make the trip from Mumbai, and kept myself in a Santana mood by changing one of my passwords to something connected, posting a daily dose of trivia on Facebook, listening to some of the old classics on CD, discovering live footage on YouTube, and preparing my own list of songs I wanted him to play. Fans can be crazy, and I’m no exception.
Obviously, I was looking forward to a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and joining me on this Santana pilgrimage were my music-loving buddies Raj Zaveri and Navin Salian. A few other friends like Bobin James and Zameer Vahanvaty had come down from Mumbai too, and before the show, Raj and I were keenly hoping against hope that he’d play one of our favourite pieces ‘Oneness’.
As expected, Santana didn’t play ‘Oneness’, but we had no reason to complain. He and his entire band took the stage at the Vladivar Rock n’ India event at 6.55 pm, a few minutes after Indus Creed concluded their opening act, mostly consisting of songs from their new album ‘Evolve’. Suddenly, we saw the guitar god up there, dressed in white with some colourful designs on his shirt and his trademark hat, playing his PRS Santana signature guitar to the accompaniment of a thousand drum beats, Benny Reitveid’s thumping bassline and David Matthews’ wailing keyboards.
What song would he play next? That was the question we kept asking for the next two hours.
Rock concert set lists are understandably very tough to prepare, especially when the musician has been playing for well over four decades and has a string of hits. It’s difficult to please everybody in the audience. The older fans wouldn’t want to miss any of their ancient favourites. The younger crowd would want something more recent, video-familiar and Grammy-ish. And Santana would have himself wanted to promote his latest instrumental album ‘Shape Shifter’, though he surprisingly decided to skip that totally.
We knew Santana would play many of the classics, but curiously enough, he began with a few lesser-known numbers. A short musical dedication called ‘Stopover in Bangalore’ (the same tune might be changing its name in every city) was followed by ‘(Da Le) Yaleo’, the opening song from his 1999 album ‘Supernatural’. Vocalists Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas added to the festive atmosphere, and Jeff Cressman came up with a trombone solo that took the energy levels to another planet. The ultra-talented drummer Dennis Chambers, percussionist Karl Perazzo, conga wizard Raul Rekow, rhythm guitarist Thomas Maestu and trumpeter Bill Ortiz partied along. Gooseflesh!
Song number three, and the crowd screamed in instant delight, as Santana began the opening bars of ‘Black Magic Woman/ Gypsy Queen’, one of his biggest hits from the 1970 album ‘Abraxas’. Honestly though, this wasn’t one of the high points of the evening, as the Peter Green/ Gabor Zsabo medley composition was marred by vocals that didn’t seem quite there. Maybe we are so used to hearing the age-old version sung by Gregg Rolie, that any other timbre sounded odd. Never mind, the majority loved it.
Bang came ‘Oye Como Va’, originally written by Tito Puente and set to a Latino-salsa-jazz-rock flavour by Santana on ‘Abraxas’. And to woo the youngsters, Santana next chose the more poppish ‘Maria Maria’, originally played with The Product G&B in ‘Supernatural’. Also on the newer side was ‘Foo Foo’ from the 2002 album ‘Shaman’, with its infectious dance beat, Latin American chants, and melodic trumpet and trombone.
The all-time instrumental favourite ‘Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile’) from the 1976 album ‘Amigos’ was played marvellously for a few minutes, really giving everyone a high. Then shockingly, Santana decided to leave out the famous ending riff, much to the disappointment of those who’ve grown up on that song.
Just as we were wondering what on earth and heaven happened there, Santana brought in a change in drummer, calling his second wife Cindy Blackman for a guest appearance. She played on the ‘Supernatural’ song ‘Corazon Espinado’, which suddenly moved into a very short extract from the 1971 masterpiece ‘Guajira’ from ‘Santana III’, and followed up with a pounding seven-minute drum solo.
Even before the applause died down, Dennis Chambers was back on drums, joined by congas and trademark guitar lines as the famous Babatunde Olatunde composition ‘Jingo’ rent the air. One of the classics from Santana’s 1969 debut album, this was definitely one of the evening’s highlights, and was soon followed by a string of early hits ― ‘No One to Depend On’ (from ‘Santana III’), the Clarence Henry-written ‘Evil Ways’ (debut album), the guitar-led instrumental beauty ‘Samba Pa Ti’ (‘Abraxas’) and the percussion-keyboard-guitar-bass stunner ‘Se A Cabo’ (written by conga genius Jose ‘Chepito’ Areas in ‘Abraxas’).
What was surprising, however, was the inclusion of the version of jazz legend John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, which he’d played with guitarist John McLaughlin in the 1973 project ‘Love Devotion Surrender’. Not one of his well-known numbers. Somewhere in between, Santana took the names of musical greats John Lennon, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, and then dived into a peace and unity speech probably inspired by his former spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy. Only problem was that it was a bit too long.
‘Smooth’, the song which bagged Santana a truckload of Grammys in ‘Supernatural’, had to be there. And though original vocalist Rob Thomas was missing, Lindsay and Vargas quite made up, much to the delight of the youngsters present.
Just as the concert seemed to be coming to an end, a familiar chant was heard, and soon, video clips of the famous Woodstock concert in 1969 were flashed on the giant screen, showing a very young and zapped-out Santana, with flashes of drummer Mike Shrieve, percussionist Areas and keyboardist Rolie. It was time for the ultimate Santana number ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and an electrifying rendition was followed by short excerpts from ‘Bridegroom’, George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Toussaint L’Overture’, dedicated to the 18th century leader of the Haitian revolution.
Two hours and 15 minutes, all in all. Despite a few flaws here and there, it was an out-and-out treat for Santana fans. Yes, one has seen him in films shot in much younger days and the obvious comparisons did come up, but it was a hyper-energetic performance by everyone.
The set list, of course, concentrated on four albums ― the first three releases ‘Santana’, ‘Abraxas’ and ‘Santana III’, and his later super-hit ‘Supernatural’, with a few exceptions here and there. Nothing from ‘Zebop’ and ‘Caravanserai’, two of his best albums. Or from ‘Borbolletta’, ‘Marathon’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Milagro’ or his newest ‘Shape Shifter’. Some awesome songs like ‘She’s Not There’, ‘Victim of Circumstance’ and his version of JJ Cale’s ‘The Sensitive Kind’ weren’t there. No ‘Oneness’ either.
It didn’t matter, really. One may always crib that Santana is well past his prime, and that India has now become a market for out-of-fashion rock dinosaurs. But the truth is that besides taking one on a joyful nostalgia ride, one gets a true idea of the innovation and ingenuity that went behind the creation of such music.
Carlos Santana pioneered a unique brand of rock music, infusing elements of Latino music, jazz, blues, salsa and reggae. Yes, he’s had a few low phases over the years, but then, that’s a trait common to all rock artistes. What’s creditable is that 60s giants like him, Bob Dylan, Ian Anderson, Eric Clapton and Leonard Cohen are still producing some highly listenable new material, whereas the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Gilmour and Roger Waters are still rocking the live circuit.
Personally, every moment was well worth it, right from the Facebook build-up and CD-listening spells to the journey to the actual show and even the long wait after the concert ended. Probably, my one regret was that I didn’t have a Santana T-shirt, and chose a Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ black tee for the show. But who cares? It was a dream come true.