It’s been a really awful few weeks. Brexit, no Government, no opposition, defeat to Iceland, Jo Cox, Caroline Aherne. You’d be forgiven for thinking that tonight’s crowd at the Hammersmith Apollo might have reason to be a little agitated right now. In residence was Carlos Santana, legendary guitarist and head of the nine-piece Latin jazz-rock fusion band that bears his surname; and the artistes did engender a few whistles of dissent by emerging close to 20 minutes late.
Within a few bars of the opening number Soul Sacrifice however, it was clear the audience were going to at least momentarily forget arguments surrounding in or out. Tonight the agenda was just to shake it all about.
At sixty-eight, Carlos looks every bit as sprightly now as he did when he graced the stage at Woodstock in 1969. The band were paid $750 for Woodstock – or put another way, less than a fifth of a cent per audience member. Given they were virtually unknown at the time and forty-seven years later they sell out just about everywhere they play, it had to be one of the most successful loss-leaders in world history.
Aside from the derisory pay check (Hendrix got $30,000), the other notable thing about the Woodstock performance was that the band were high on LSD; Santana is famously on record for saying he believed the neck of his guitar was a snake that was writhing in his hands. Fortunately, everything seemed much more sedate tonight. During Hammond organ solos, expertly performed by Etta James’ keys maestro David K Matthews, Santana even took time out for a nice sip of tea – at least I assume it was tea.
There was also time for lots of interaction with the audience: “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not lip-syncing – we never learned how to do that shit”, he says early on; and we were treated to a very long (perhaps over-long) stream of consciousness monologue about I’m not sure what, around half way through. “I love him, but he don’t half go on” says the man next to me through a beaming grin.
Santana might have occasionally gone on, but he also displayed mass-mind control that would have shamed Derren Brown: “This music we’re playing is not for sitting down” he mildly rebuked ahead of the infectious Corazón Espinado, causing the entire auditorium to jump to their feet.
Of course, we weren’t here for the chat, but the music; and there was plenty of it – over two and a half hours in fact. The band are touring latest album Santana IV, which hit shelves in April. Santana IV is the twenty-third studio release by the band, but only the fourth album to feature the principle players from the Woodstock era, and it comes a whopping forty-five years after the similarly cleverly titled Santana III.
Clearly, some reunions are trickier to organise than others. With the exception of Santana himself, none of the principle players from the classic line up (Gregg Rolie on keys, Neal Schon on guitar, Mike Carabello on percussion and Michael Shrieve on drums) appear in the touring band.
The set list covered a broad spectrum of tunes, harvested from much of the back-catalogue. The Latin flavoured numbers allowed the triumvirate of Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejias on percussion, and the utterly brilliant Cindy Blackman Santana (Carlos’s wife) on drums to really let rip. They occupied the full width of the stage.
We were treated to some out and out, four to the floor rock in Hope You’re Feeling Better, and a revolving door of contemporary covers. Some of these, such as Willie Dixon’s I Just Want To Make Love To You were standalone numbers, though most were cleverly worked cameos segued into other songs. We heard The In Crowd, Eleanor Rigby, the James Bond Theme, Imagine and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. At one point, we even got a verse and chorus of Baa Baa Black Sheep.
The cover version that came most out of left-field was principally delivered by rhythm guitarist Tommy Anthony, following his introduction to the crowd. To be honest, Anthony had to this point been fairly anonymous towards the back of the stage so it did come as a bit of a surprise when he delivered a marvellous version of Roxanne, complete with impressively Sting-like vocals.
There was just about time for the classics Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen and Smooth, the 1999 song that went Platinum in just about every market that matters, re-energised Santana’s career, and introduced his music to an entirely new generation.
The tour now continues through Europe (remember Europe?) before concluding with a fourteen-night residency at House Of Blues in Las Vegas. Tonight’s show at the Apollo was a complete sell-out and the people were still dancing their way up the aisles towards the exits long after the lights had come up. Fortunately, it seems, Santana appears to be one long-term institution the British public hasn’t given up on.
Review and photographs by Simon Reed. Santana at Hammersmith Apollo on 3rd July 2016.
See more of Simon’s photography on his site: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk