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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Santana is still so smooth

The Woodstock warrior, revived by 1999's 'Supernatural,' shows that his rhythm method works

October 14, 2002|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Carlos Santana may have hit his career peak 30 years in with 1999's "Supernatural," but deep down he'll always be a child of the '60s. He said as much not long into a wildly celebratory performance Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, as he embarked on the follow to his last album, which racked up nine Grammys and has sold more than 11 million copies in the U.S. alone.

"Even though it's 2002, we still have that vibration of the 1960s," he told the cross-generational, cross-cultural crowd that packed the Bowl. A key part of that vibe, to which the 55-year-old guitar hero still clings, is the deeply felt belief that peace on Earth and the universal brotherhood of humanity might be realized in our lifetimes.

Other aspects of the '60s might be better off left there. Like drum solos. Yet we got a 10-minute workout that was best viewed as an extended chance to reflect on George Harrison's wise words, "All things must pass." Percussion being integral to Santana's Latin-based world music, the drum solo probably was inevitable. Fortunately, the guitarist and his 11-member band offered plenty well worth cheering, the vast majority of it from "Supernatural" and its follow-up, "Shaman," which is being released Oct. 22.

Santana opened the show with several songs from the new disc, only one of which -- "The Game of Love" -- fans have had a chance to hear yet. The early emphasis on new material would be a bolder move for other rock and pop bands, but Santana's whole career has been built on permutations of rock-infused Latin rhythms. So if the new songs weren't specifically familiar, they melded seamlessly into the group's repertoire.

For that matter, "Shaman" could have been called "Superdupernatural," given the repeat of its predecessor's hit formula: pairing the veteran guitarist and his bandmates with a parade of pop, rock and hip-hop performers du jour.

But the band itself is so accomplished and flexible that the guests seem like a frill. Singers Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas made the absence of Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas a moot point when they handled his vocal duties on "Smooth," given an extended treatment that turned the Bowl into a surging dance party.

The only outside help from "Shaman" on Saturday came from Michelle Branch, the young rock singer-songwriter who performs "The Game of Love," and opening act Ozomatli, which returned to the stage to chime in with its parts from the album on "One of These Days."

On record, "The Game of Love" is a confection -- the only substance coming from Santana's guitar, his signature tone implying spiritual purity at its core, with a thin skin of distortion conveying the human side of things. Live, however, the band turned up the heat so that "Game" gained a welcome forcefulness.

In concert, the band almost completely skipped the hip-hop elements that run through "Shaman" and "Supernatural," which tend to feel forced. That left the wide variety of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and other Latin American flavors to carry the night, which the band did easily, thanks also to the skilled work of key soloists Chester Thompson (keyboards) and Bill Ortiz (trumpet).

You'd barely have guessed Santana had a career before 1999 until the very end of the show. That's when the band returned to the very beginnings of its career for encore performances of "Black Magic Woman" and Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va," both of which were sparked with rhythmic twists that freshened these hyper-familiar numbers.

The overall spirit of celebration extended to Ozomatli's set, which hip-hopped through the band's rap y rock en espanol catalog. The group trekked from its Latin-rooted rap- rock into back-to-back songs that channeled Arabic modality and then klezmer music -- echoing the band's one-world political view -- before winding up with roots-rock polka so vibrant it would have raised the roof, if the Bowl had one.

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