The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock – Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a rundown cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about 20 or 30 people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of homegrown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter, and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.
It might also be what’s responsible for why I can’t help but think of his music as dream-like and trance-inducing. Even in the straightest of atmospheres, the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I’ve seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I’ve never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I’ve missed out on an experience.
Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21, 2012, they released Greatest Hits: Santana – Live At Montreux 2011, a two-disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly 50 years of his career.
Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two-disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s, Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people’s radars. Occasionally a song like “Black Magic Woman” or “Evil Ways” would make it onto the radio but then he’d seemingly vanish again. It wasn’t until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so-called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like “Maria Maria” and “Back In Black” became hits and earned him accolades he hadn’t received earlier.
Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he’s a band leader who doesn’t necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist. In this case, the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and Santana is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night, one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band, it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don’t even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.
Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own ego to the greater good of the music. Periodically, Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana, you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn’t making these announcements to milk the audience for applause. You could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity, as if they weren’t used to such public expressions of emotion. He was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
Maybe it’s this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don’t know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers, and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on trumpet and Jeff Cressman on trombone, they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed, so while there wasn’t a note out of place, there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.
It’s not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They’re called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme”, to classic rock and roll with Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”. Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well.
Of course, they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he’s considered one of popular music’s great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like it’s been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise. Instead, they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant. If it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.
If you’re a fan of Santana, or if you’ve just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Santana: Greatest Hits – Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I’ve seen filmed at the Montreux Festival, the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like you’re in the middle of the concert, and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features, these discs give you Carlo Santana as you’ve never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes, I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for?