Why, Carlos? Why? I’m pretty sure I said it aloud, and quite possibly buried my head in my hands afterward. When I heard that Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart were teaming for a summer tour I was baffled. “What’s next?” I asked myself. “Michael Bublé with Phish?”
Social media was alight, locally, on the day this superstar pairing – which performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the First Niagara Center – was announced. Most of the folks who posted scoffed at the notion, sensing a cynicism in the booking. I was seriously upset. Why? Because I genuinely love Santana. His music grabbed me at a young age, and it changed my life.
OK, so you smell hyperbole in my pledge of love, and I don’t blame you. But bear with me, as I take you back to Aug. 9, 1982, when a 14-year-old me attended his first Santana show, at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I was a budding guitar player, but my interests were progressive rock and heavy metal, predominantly. The Beatles, my first musical obsession, had ceased to speak to me, for what would turn out to be a brief period. I hated the school I attended, was feeling alienated from most of my peers, and wanted music that spoke to my reality. Heavy music. Aggressive music. Angry music.
I was not very familiar with Santana, but I knew he was considered a major guitarist, and I thought I’d check it out. Like most life-changing events, this one didn’t reveal its true nature until I was well into it. Thirty-two years later, I can still see the lights dimming just as the sun was starting to sink. And then a thundercloud of Latin percussion rolled over me. Santana had a drum around his neck, and the trio of percussionists was laying down a groove like I’d never heard a groove laid down. The percussion intro gave way to “All I Ever Wanted,” a tune that effortlessly blended pop, rock, progressive leanings and Latin grooves into a convincing whole. What is this?
Then came Santana’s first guitar solo. The hair on my arms stands up as I write this, recalling the way that tone – clear, thick, sustained, singing, gorgeous – cut through the air and hit me dead in the chest. As corny as this sounds, I interpreted it as the sound of love. There is no other way to describe that sound, which so clearly sought to elevate, uplift and embrace. My mind and heart were opened by the experience, and I saw the band every chance I got. Heavy metal seemed silly – well, at least most of it did – in that instant when I heard Santana play. He said with a handful of notes what all of these macho showoffs needed continuous flurries of hyper-picked arpeggios to say. This was a higher purpose for the instrument and I felt like I had just been offered a master class in grace.
Loving Santana led me to his influences – the earliest bluesmen, jazz, funk, Latin and Afro-Cuban music; the electric periods of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock; on to Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Grateful Dead and to John Coltrane. These musicians remain at the core of my listening and playing today.
I would eventually interview Santana during the finest encounter with a famous musician I’ve had as a journalist. He responded to my effusive praise with the far too kind “I feel your heart, Jeff, and you touch my own heart with your words.” I assure you, no one says stuff like this in an interview. And now he’s touring with Rod Stewart, a man who traded his credibility as one of rock’s most soulful vocalists decades ago, apparently for a later-period career as a middling interpreter of the Great American Songbook. I adore Stewart’s work with the Faces and his early solo albums, and find him entertaining. But let’s face it – it’s a schmaltzy, Las Vegas-style entertainment, not a raw and visceral musical communion. Santana has fraternized with pop stars repeatedly over the past 15 years, more often than not in a manner that, as a serious longtime fan, I found somewhat embarrassing. But this? It feels like something dreamed up in a boardroom.
So why? The Associated Press asked Santana that very question. “I can say it the way Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock would say it – ‘Both of us love to play spiritual music to touch all hearts,’ ” Santana replied. “That’s one thing. The rascal in me... says, ‘We both love black music. We like to play black music for white people.’ ”
For Santana, that seems to be enough of a reason to make this shared tour feel legitimate. Me? I don’t know. Ask me on Sunday morning.