Monday, August 14, 2000

Santana subs voices on 'Supernatural' hits

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Success hasn't spoiled Carlos Santana, but it hasn't helped him much, either.

        Saturday night, the guitar great returned to Riverbend riding the biggest hit of his 30-something year career. His 1999 album, Supernatural, swept this year's Grammys and dominated rock radio with “Smooth” (co-written by former Cincinnatian Itaal Shuur) and “Maria Maria.”

        So instead of his usual half-capacity crowd, he and his band sold out the pavilion and packed the lawn. And instead of having to watch his audience fidget through most of the night waiting for “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va,” he had a whole bunch of new hits to play for them.

        But it was still a Santana concert, his patented mix of spirituality and raw, earthy rhythms. When he arrived onstage he first acknowledged “the presence of the invisible ones” (angels). Then it was time to dip into Supernatural, as he and his nine-man band played the album's first three songs in order “(Da Le) Yaleo,” “Love of My Life” and “Put Your Lights On.”

        The problem was, when you do an all-star collaboration like Supernatural, you can't tour with the original singers. So, while Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas alternated lead vocals and sang well and soulfully, they sounded absolutely nothing like Dave Matthews and Everlast, who recorded the latter two songs, respectively.

        As a result, though Mr. Santana spun off beautiful guitar solos filled with his trademark fire and tone and his Santana band was the same group that played on the album, it still sounded like a cover band doing someone else's hits.

        It was most obvious on the most familiar songs, “Smooth” and “Maria Maria.” But some of the best moments in a Santana show come when the guitarist and his world-class band just tear the roof off. They blew “Smooth” completely apart, first playing it just like the record, then turning it into a traditional salsa, all blazing percussion and fiery horns. It was one of the best moments of the night.

        But his newfound success has failed to tighten up his show. Too much of the two-hour-20-minute performance merely meandered. Bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Billy Johnson, conga player Raul Rekow and timbale player Karl Perazzo were all given lengthy solo spots that showed off their skill while adding nothing to the overall show. Of course, at 53, Mr. Santana may just have needed a break.

        Another stretch that went on too long featured opening act Macy Gray and her group joining Santana in what became a chaotic chantalong. Hometown funk hero Bootsy Collins, who never misses a Santana concert, made an appearance here.

        The encores returned Santana to top form, with the brooding power of “Black Magic Woman” and the best example of Mr. Santana's fusion of guitar heroics and Afro-Cuban beats, the late Tito Puente's “Oye Como Va.”

        And whether it was all those Grammys or just the pressure of the election year, but the ordinarily gentle, apolitical guitarist spoke up in his encore to endorse Al Gore and bluntly tell the crowd (amid considerable booing from the largely middle-aged, Republican audience), “Anyone who votes for (George W.) Bush is either an Uncle Tom or a fool.” Raspy-voiced Macy Gray and her 12-piece band opened with a set of organic R&B that mixed Memphis soul and George Clinton funk with touches of hip-hop. But despite her considerable stage presence, her set never really took off.


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