In some ways, Santana is a strange fit for Las Vegas. While the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is one of music’s most innovative, enduring and talented performers, he doesn’t have the wealth of top 40 hits that fellow Vegas residents like Elton John, Rod Stewart or Celine Dion draw upon to lure in the tourists and conventioneers. Instead, his show, billed “Greatest Hits Live: Santana-Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow,” is more about unyielding musicality. Songs meld seamlessly into each other, unified by an unparalleled level of musicianship and his glorious guitar playing.
Santana, who moved from the Bay Area to Las Vegas during the Hard Rock residency, often talks about his concerts as spiritual experiences, and watching him play with eyes closed, head tilted back just far enough so that his hat doesn’t fall off, it was easy to believe that the music flowing through him was channeled from some higher place. No matter how many of the dozen musicians on stage were playing at any one time, his razor-sharp notes rose above all. There was a purity, grace and crispness to his playing that remains undiminished since he stunned audiences at Woodstock in 1969.
Though enjoyable, it took a few songs for the show to find its footing on opening night. About 30 minutes in, Santana launched into “Black Magic Woman,” which is really the melding of three songs: “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Gypsy Queen.” By the time Santana howled into the ferocious “Gypsy Queen,” it felt as if the room could levitate.
While singers Tony Lindsay and Tommy Anthony certainly added to songs like “Maria, Maria” and “Smooth,” and served as cheerleaders of sorts to rally the enthusiastic crowd, this show was about the players, not the singers. Santana and timbales player Karl Perazzo, congas player Raul Rekow and drummer extraordinaire Dennis Chambers often got locked into such a Latin funk/jazz pocket that it felt as though they were one. As hyperbolic as that sounds, there was something transcendent about seeing, feeling and hearing musicians communicate at this level that, at its pinnacle, was breathtaking.
Santana spoke little, but when he did it was to spout his now familiar and heartfelt, if esoteric, messages about eternity and positivity. “I want to talk about forward thinking,” he said, after performing “A Love Supreme,” by his musical hero John Coltrane. “Forward thinking is being present with love. Do it with love or just don’t do it at all. When you put love in it, everything is delicious.”
The encore included a sweeping, expansive version of instrumental “Soul Sacrifice,” which he played at Woodstock. Although the audience was rapturous in its applause, Santana seemed to feel he could have done better. He somewhat abruptly thanked the crowd, adding “This is our first time here. We intend to make more everything: more finesse, more energy.” With a two-year residency ahead of him, he’ll have more than enough time to sort out any kinks, even if he’s the only one who can see them.