Toward the end of his Hollywood Bowl appearance, Carlos Santana explained to the near-sold out crowd that his music was an experience designed to expose new skin, bringing with it, among other things, “love, elegance and dignity.” If that’s a bit too new age-y for comfort (he also noted that he defined his job as “crystallizing intentions”), his guitar playing cuts through the babble, its liquid yearning tone and aching phrasing an aural exfoliant, giving voice to the values he listed and centering an often unfocused night of music.
Evening began on a high note with “Jingo,” a fiery instrumental updating “Soul Sacrifice” with African beats. But the driving rhythms stopped when representatives of Artists for a New South Africa took the stage. Once they finished their appeal for action and thanked Santana for donating the “net proceeds” from his American tour to the organization (show was preceded by a tape of Desmond Tutu voicing his appreciation) and ceded the stage back to the musicians, it felt like a new band was onstage. Lite-jazz replaced surging Afro-beat, and was then followed by some classical guitar and the slick radio pop of “The Game of Love,” as the concert followed the leave-no-format-unserved ethos of last year’s “Shaman” (Arista), giving the evening the frustrating mien of a long road trip with someone who hyperactively scans the radio.
But no matter how mundane the material (and the mopey “Sideways,” featuring guests Citizen Cope and M’shell Ndegeocello certainly was the nadir) Santana soloed with a grace and passion the songs often lacked. He dropped touches of Gershwin into “Make Someone Happy” wailed like Miles Davis and John Coltrane on “Spiritual,” and added a touch of doo-wop while serenading opening act Angelique Kidjo on her birthday. His playing was of such a high order that it managed to hide the fact that the set focused on recent material, ignoring his classic catalog.
While unable to rise above the material, the band played with energy and extraordinary chops, especially bassist Benny Rietveld, whose Carl-Stalling-meets-Black-Sabbath solo turn demanded (and earned) the imperatives of guitar solos, including its final quote from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.”