Carlos Santana proved to be one “Smooth” operator on Tuesday night at USANA Amphitheatre.
The legendary guitar player strolled onto the stage and made it look easy all night long, dispensing joy and incendiary guitar licks hand in hand over the course of 23 songs in a two-hour performance. It was truly a sight — and sound — to behold.
Santana is marking two big milestones this tour — the 50th anniversary of his performance at Woodstock and the 20th year since the release of his career-reinventing No. 1 album “Supernatural.” The current jaunt, dubbed the “Supernatural Now Tour,” is still in its early stages. The tour kicked off on June 22 in Phoenix, and the USANA Amphitheatre show was the eighth of 29 dates.
“Supernatural,” naturally, played a big part in Tuesday’s setlist, with six songs coming from that career-stratosphere-boosting album, which was released in 1999 and went on to sell more than 30 million records worldwide. Songs from this album included “(Da Le) Yaleo,” “Put Your Lights On,” “The Calling,” “Maria Maria,” “Corazon Espinado” and mega-hit “Smooth.” The “Supernatural” songs were spread throughout the show, dispensing the album’s vibe a little here and a little there rather than a few larger doses.
Santana’s eight-person backing band was simply amazing in its own right on many fronts, combining pure musicianship, stagecraft and vocal prowess in a melange of sound that provided the perfect palette for Santana to showcase his guitar artistry. Overall, it was an unrelenting rhythmic feast for the senses.
Santana’s band includes lead vocalists Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (who also adds sax and trombone to the mix), bassist Benny Rietveld, keyboardist David K Mathews, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Anthony, percussionist Karl Perazzo, percussionist Paoli Mejías and drummer extraordinaire Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos’ wife. All seven members had several opportunities to show off their own skills in solo-type situations and they all killed it. Especially invigorating was Cindy Blackman Santana’s four-and-a-half-minute drum solo during the encore as well as her intense lead vocal turn on a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the main set.
Santana himself was the main star of the show, of course, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his demeanor as he casually strode the stage in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt just laying down some killer guitar work in a manner that could mostly be described as calm, cool and collected. He often moved to the side or the back of the stage to give his band members their time in the spotlight.
Santana was a man of few words, only addressing the crowd a few times throughout the evening. However, he let his guitar do the talking, and it was a spellbinding conversation. While he can certainly string an extended flurry of bent notes, hammer-ons, pull-offs, pinched harmonics and other guitar tricks of the trade in casual fluidity with the best of them, there were several times where Santana held on to one pure note way longer than one might expect, as if to wring every last bit of emotion from it before it faded away. These were some of my favorite moments.
While the crowd was often reverently responsive via rapt attention, there were other times when the sheer joy of musical connection contagiously swept through the audience, with fans up and dancing in the aisles and otherwise going crazy.
Santana himself pointed out the conflicting reactions late in the main set.
“We go around the world and people are going bananas — and we come here and get the ‘polite-atitis,’ “ he said. “If you don’t go bananas, you’re going to have to meet with a psychiatrist or therapist. People who are happy, they don’t need that.”
Indeed, Santana compared the response that he was looking for to be like that moment a wet shaggy dog first attempts to shake itself dry. The audience seemed to oblige as from that time forward the crowd reaction was pretty much off the chain.
Some of the main highlights Tuesday included “Evil Ways,” “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” “Black Magic Woman,” an extended, jammed out “Oye Como Va,” “The Game of Love” and guitar showcase “Toussaint L’Overture.”
The encore featured the celebratory “People Are You Ready,” the tranquil guitar instrumental “Europa,” the unmitigated fun of “Smooth” and the anthemic “Love, Peace and Happiness.” During “Smooth,” Santana pulled up onstage a young audience member, a boy who appeared to be about 8 years old, from the front rows to play a pair of maracas. It turned out to be quite entertaining as the boy gave no indication of stagefright and pretty much worked the crowd as if he were a full-time member of the band.
A shoutout also goes to the two new giant video boards on either side of the amphitheater. They provided live footage of the band members all night, giving those in the cheaper seats a more up close and personal concert experience. These are a great addition to USANA Amphitheatre.
The Doobie Brothers opened Tuesday’s show with a typically upbeat and straightforward effort. Guitarists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons traded off most of the lead vocal duties as the Doobies rocked through a few album tracks and a strong selection of hits in a 70-minute performance.
Guitarist John McFee delivered some outstanding solos in “Ukiah,” and “Sweet Maxine” was also an inspired setlist choice and featured some great guitar work by Johnston.
Additional highlights included opener “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Long Train Running,” “China Grove” and the double encore of “Black Water” and “Listen to the Music.”