First things first: The all-star concert was a benefit for the Grammy in the Schools Music Education program, raising $ 300,000 toward that valuable cause. It also celebrated the 10th anniversary of Hollywood’s RockWalk.
It was also a fine forum to show why Santana is so respected by fellow musicians despite being so strangely underrated in his own country (though he is a huge star abroad). Those who are obsessed with categories and “profound” lyrics are always baffled, dismissing him as “Latin rock.” Yet Santana’s music spills freely into several genres, and his flexible band fits comfortably into most of them.
There were moments that drove the point home forcefully, none more so than on “Open Invitation,” when Santana proved to the outclassed Kirk Hammett (from Metallica) that he mastered the heavy metal sound way ahead of the current crop. Buddy Guy’s proto-Hendrix guitar blended easily into “Everybody’s Everything” and he and Santana engaged in a humorous exchange of guitarspeak.
John Lee Hooker’s sinister presence was all that was needed to inspire a full-tilt boogie; he did little else, and didn’t have to.
Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” fit the Santana band perfectly in the original rollicking Mongo Santamaria manner, but when Hancock tried to ram a Bob Marley medley into a jarring iceberg of dissonance, it didn’t work. Likewise, a typically complicated Wayne Shorter workout sounded messy and unwieldy, yet Santana’s lyrical standard “Europa” suited the great saxophonist to a tee.
Not long after a marvelously swinging “Guajira,” with Jorge Santana offering a smoothly sustained mirror-image of his brother’s guitar, Mickey Hart (of the late Grateful Dead) took the lead on the most daring (and successful) flight of the night. He led a fascinating, even inspired Balinese/Africanlike jam on electronic and acoustic percussion, a bewildering experiment for Santana that ought to be followed up. Later, a seemingly reluctant Bob Weir (also of the Dead) and strato-blasting trumpeter Arturo Sandoval joined the lineup in some Santana evergreens (“Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,””Oye Como Va”) that still retain all their percolating power.
The presentation could have been edited a lot: too much talk from co-host Edward James Olmos interrupted the music for long stretches in Part I. But there was a moving historical touch, a flashback of a 1991 video of Bill Graham feting Santana for his willingness to show up anytime for a cause. Also Al Hendrix (father of Jimi) was in the hall, hearing interpretations that would have made his son proud.