Monday, July 19, 2010

The Church of Carlos Santana: Ontario Place's Molson Amphitheatre - July 11, 2010

It is possible to suggest that going to see a Carlos Santana concert is yet another trip down memory lane (after claiming, as I did in my June 27th Jethro Tull piece, that I don't go see nostalgia acts), however there's something about his ability over the years to reinvent himself that still makes him vital. He's not as good at it as somebody like Madonna, but he still finds ways -- by either surrounding himself with currently popular singers/musicians (Rob Thomas in 1999 for the hit song “Smooth,” or Chad Kroeger of Nickelback in 2007 with the very catchy tune “Into the Night”) or embracing timely musical genres and infusing them with his own sensibilities -- to stay relevant. And yet, within that vitality is a political point of view that is seriously trapped in the 1960s - but first, to the concert.

The opening act was Steve Winwood. He has made a good habit over the last few years of being the special guest for people such as Santana, Tom Petty and Eric Clapton. Singing hits from the 1960s such as “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” (when he was part of The Spencer Davis Group) and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (from his stint in Traffic), through the 1980s, “Higher Love” (his solo years), Winwood's voice still sounds, well, like Steve Winwood. His vocal cords got tired near the end of his 75-minute show, but for a 62-year old, he sounds a lot like he did when he was 16. His band is very solid with a laugh provided to my wife and I as we both thought his lead guitarist, Jose Neto, from a distance at least (we were about 50 feet from the stage), looked like Critics at Large's Kevin Courrier (who knew Kevin had a side gig!). It was not a great, revelatory set, but a nice way to start a warm night down by the water. If there was musical nostalgia on the evening, it was here.

With time ticking (all concerts must end at Ontario Place by 11pm due to noise restrictions), the set-up crew rapidly changed up the stage and Santana and his dynamic 10-piece band hit the stage at around 9:10. Over the next two hours he and his band blistered their way through old hits (“Oye Como Va,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” etc.) and new (fine versions of “Maria, Maria,” “Smooth,” “Into the Night,” etc.) Heck there was even a LOOOOONG drum solo by Dennis Chambers that was thoroughly enjoyable (and I hate prog-rockish drum solos), because he filled it with both skill and a lot of humour. Each member of Santana's band, including his two touring singers, Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, were given their appropriate moment in the limelight. Oh, did I mention that it was REALLY LOUD? My ears rang for two days afterwards because I didn't think to bring the plugs.

Where Santana's naive and dated politics came to the fore was when he took to the mic and held talky, rambling polemics about numerous subjects. Drawing attention to his seemingly 'of the era' Woodstock t-shirt, he made the point of praising Barack Obama and encouraging him to stick to his schedule and bring the troops home and end both wars. He made the eye-rolling comparison between Iran/Iraq and Vietnam. I had to restrain myself from shouting out "NO THERE ISN'T, CARLOS," but I bit the inside of my cheek. During these moments I couldn't help but think "shut up and play." (No mention was made of his recent cowardly decision to cancel a concert in Israel due to pressure from anti-Israeli groups -- I held my tongue on that subject, too.) When he just played, his mixture of American rock, Latin rhythms, afro beat grooves and jazz riffs made him and his music seem completely contemporary. Even songs like “Maria, Maria” had hints of hip-hop buried within it. But when he started singing a song right near the end that had a chorus about 'peace and love,' my eyes rolled again. During this, the penultimate song, two young people came down (his future fans) and took up seats in a now-empty spot a couple of rows ahead of me. As Carlos and band sang 'peace and love, peace and love,' a burly security guard descended upon this couple and berated them until they left. There was about four minutes left in the concert and he couldn't let it go. So much for peace and love.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and writer. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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