Las Vegas, Nevada—Far away from the glitz and glamour of the Strip is a non-descript area of low-ceilinged buildings that from afar look like warehouses. It’s so set off from the hub of the bub that my taxi driver had a hard time finding it. Once inside, though, the “warehouse” is, in actuality, the offices of one Carlos Santana: rock star, icon, guitarist, composer and world-class philosopher, philanthropist and activist. The 68-year-old looks great, every inch the superstar. He’s in town for his usual extended stay at the House Of Blues, nestled comfortably in the bowels of Mandalay Bay, one of the most opulent of all the Vegas hotel-casinos.
It might seem ironic that this counter-culture hero is plying his trade in Sin City, a town known for The Rat Pack, Elvis Presley’s comeback and Bugsy Siegel. Today, though, Vegas is family-oriented, a big amusement park. Although there’s still plenty of sin, there doesn’t seem to be the kind of desperation you see in Atlantic City as harried blue-collar types scurry to empty their bank accounts at ATMs. It’s all very surrealistic. From the architecture and the desert heat to the 24/7 action where there are still no clocks anywhere. And let’s not forget the sports book where you can sit in air-conditioned comfort nursing a drink and a sandwich while watching baseball with a bet on every game for 12 straight hours on multiple big-screens (your money lasts longer here than throwing the bones on the green felt). The shows are Broadway-styled extravaganzas. The drinks are strong. The women are ubiquitous (and they all want to go out with you).
To see Santana at the House Of Blues is to totally lose yourself in an intimate atmosphere where Carlos is in your face, Jack. The sound is pristine. The bass runs through your gut. The clear trebly top end is satisfying as hell. The chords resonate not only in your mind but in their heart. I dug the bombast of it all. I dug the Latin and Salsa fire he’s been bringing to the fore for 46 years before the term “world music” ever existed. See him today and you’ll see a shaman at work, a wise man dispensing between-song wisdom (“make this day the best day of your life”) while getting all Hendrixian like the true rock god he is. Electric shock waves coursed through my body at the sight and sound of this unflappable, unstoppable, larger-than-life Hendrixian figure coaxing the most outrageous sounds out of his ax.
Yeah, he’s better than ever.
Nine hours earlier, I was seated across a table from him gushing over the fact that I saw him in 1969 open for Buddy Miles at The Singer Bowl in Queens across the street from Shea Stadium before going to Woodstock two weeks later and seeing him again. I asked him about his decision to return to the sound of that original band. Indeed, he confirmed, 2016 will feature a Santana band with a lot of the originals including Neal Schon who left in 1973 to form Journey.
But the man had something else on his mind.
In his soft, circuitous way, he spoke of changing the mindset of big cities nationwide by posting billboards promoting positive vibes (similar to what John and Yoko did in New York City one Christmas with their “War Is Over” message) plus piping into town squares and malls the music of peace from “Blowing In The Wind” and “One World” to “What’s Going On.” “Music is all one,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if it’s John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson or George Harrison. It all comes from the same place of inner peace and joy.”
And he proved it that night by quoting them all during his extended-jam solos.
“I am convinced that if people heard the songs of peace all the time no matter where they go, it will subconsciously curb violence in our society. To that end, I plan on giving presentations on this to 300 Mayors at a time so they will see the wisdom of this idea.
“I was very pleased to receive the Kennedy Center Honor in 2013 but I kept wishing they would let [drummer/wife] Cindy [Blackman-Santana] and I perform. No complaints with Sheila E, of course, she was great, but Cindy and I could’ve really blown the roof off that night.
“I will be referring to [current CD] Corazon on tour, for sure, but I will also be dipping way back into the history of the band by playing ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and other songs we haven’t played for a while.”
And with that, we hugged, and I got my picture taken with him. Hey, once I lose my boyish fandom, it’s time to finally retire.
Santana will perform Aug. 14 at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, Aug. 16 at The Peach Festival in Scranton, PA, Aug. 21 and 22 at the Borgata Spa & Resort in Atlantic City and Aug. 23 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. For more information, go to Santana.com.