I don’t usually go for repeat experiences. There are too many things to do in life to spend time doing things over again. Nevertheless, when I discovered Santana was coming to town, I jumped at the opportunity to hear them. Repeat experience, in this case, is loosely interpreted because the last time I saw Santana was at the US Festival in 1982 and, for the life of me, I cannot remember their performance. The memory loss must have been the result of the desert heat (wink, wink), which is probably true because Santana played midday, the temperature was over 110 degrees, and the only shade was the beer garden at the back of the festival grounds. It seems quite possible that I didn’t actually see Santana in 1982, but I definitely heard them.
I’m also not a big fan of rock-and-roll nostalgia acts. It’s depressing to see how old everyone else has become and to listen to them grind through the old, tired songs they have been playing for 50 years. Yes, I did recently see Peter Frampton and the Doobie Brothers, but it was because friends invited me and it included dinner and some rare “date” time with Kate. Besides, Peter Frampton, whom I had never seen before, only has three hits, so most of what he played was new to me. Moreover, the Doobies were able to grind efficiently through their set with only intermittent misses.
As Santana concert day approached, however, I began to experience buyer’s remorse. Was Santana just going to go through the motions? Was it really worth the time and money? Since the concert was on a Sunday night, I was facing a Monday workday without my normal beauty rest. Was the experience even going to live up to my lowered expectations? The answer is just ahead.
Note to concert promoters: If anyone in a band is over 60 years old, it is not necessary to wait until 8:00 pm to start the show. It really is OK to start around 6:30 – 7:00.
The performance was in the Concert Hall of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). The BJCC campus is huge and encompasses an arena, several meeting areas and exhibitions halls, and three theaters in addition to the Concert Hall. This was my first time to visit the Concert Hall and it turned out to be a very intimate venue with only 2,800 seats and a great view from just about anywhere.
None of the original members of Santana are still with the band, and that turned out to be just fine. This eleven-member ensemble is a powerhouse of sound featuring four drummers/percussionists. Although not listed on Santana’s website as an official member of the band, one of the drummers is Cindy Blackmon who is the current wife of Carlos Santana. No nepotism here, though, as Cindy is a well-respected New York City drummer that made a name for herself while touring for years with Lenny Kravitz.
The other instruments in the band are trumpet, trombone, bass, guitar, keyboards, and two vocalists providing additional percussion. Most of the performers are from the San Francisco Bay Area, including the keyboardist David K. Mathews. David gained fame when, at age 23, he replaced Chester Thompson as the keyboard player for Tower of Power when Chester left to join Santana. Following his stint with TOP, David toured for 21 years with Etta James until she could no longer remember the words to her songs due to dementia. After several years working various gigs, David got the call to join Santana and to once again fill the keyboardist seat vacated by Chester Thompson. Actually, for a short period there was another keyboard player filling the gap, but why let the facts get in the way of a great story of continuing legacies.
Take an extremely talented ensemble, surround a man who is unquestionably one of the top 20 guitarists EVER, and you’ll have a recipe for success. Well, this recipe delivered in spades. At age 67, Carlos Santana still plays like a man possessed. His musical ability transcends that of most mere mortals and to watch him perform raises you to an indescribable level of appreciation for his craft. Santana grabbed the audience with the first note, brought them to their feet, and held them there for 35 minutes without playing a single song that anyone (or me at least) had ever before heard. Then, during the standing ovation, you hear the unmistakable beginning rift of “Black Magic Woman” and it starts all over again.
Yes, they played all the hits. However, they played them with an intensity and freshness that made the songs feel as comfortable as your favorite old shoes while still sounding brand new. Carlos built his guitar solos around the original melodic framework, but they were slightly changed and were thus even better. It was as if Carlos took his songs and gently reimagined them as he matured as an artist, and the resulting product was like an aged fine wine.
There was even a surprise guest appearance by Birmingham’s own Taylor Hicks. I have never been much of a Taylor Hicks fan, but the American Idol winner did prove to be a more than adequate journeyman at playing the blues on the harmonica.
In summary, Santana played for almost three hours and there was never a lapse in the energy. They exceeded my expectations in every way and it was an honor to see (once again) a guitar legend practice his art. Santana is an exemplary act that has sold over 100 million albums and is a deserved member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can find their current tour schedule here. If you ever have the chance to see them perform, I highly recommend that you jump at the opportunity.
Have you ever had the chance to hear Santana live? Please post your experiences or questions in the comments section below.