Carlos Santana was the organizer of the unusual guitar summit that closed a four-hour showcase of fine fretwork Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, so it fell to him to sum up what it all meant.
“This is human music. . . . It’s from the hands and hearts of musicians who feel (what they play) before they give it to you,” Santana said. Behind him on stage were the two Texas blues-rock guitar brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan, whose respective bands had shared the marathon bill with Santana’s own group. Also on hand for the finale was a fourth all-star guitarist, Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos.
Santana’s sentiment wasn’t a mere platitude delivered because the occasion called for it but a spontaneous response to an instrumental blues ballad that provided a good example of the sort of feeling-filled music he was talking about.
Jimmie Vaughan, who plays with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, had just sculpted a lovely solo in his characteristically economical fashion, showing once more why he is the Gary Cooper of the electric guitar: not a lot of talk but plenty of purposefully directed force. Younger brother Stevie Ray, in his far more prolific way, had piled on flurries of high notes while adding some aching feelings of his own. It was a memorable sequence that left host Santana beaming (it also stood out from the rest of the 25-minute concluding jam which, like most such affairs, wasn’t very well coordinated).
For all three bands on the bill, it was a night for showing off familiar strengths and sticking to familiar material, rather than trying any new paths.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, the quintessential American roadhouse band, led off with their straightforward good-time blues songs and rockers. Stevie Ray Vaughan, ably supported by his band, Double Trouble, followed with a flashy but substantive set that gave a particularly free and convincing account of why he is a legitimate heir to the lineage of blues-rock guitar heroes. Santana, who is about to release a three-record career retrospective album, played a retrospective set with a group that included three members from the original band that first won over the masses at Woodstock 19 years ago.
“Viva Santana” is the name of the new album and the current Santana tour. The band had no trouble in bringing to life the fiery Afro-Caribbean rock that brought Santana his first fame and still stands as his signature achievement. The inclusion of organist Gregg Rolie, drummer Michael Shrieve and percussionist Chepito Areas--all members of the original Santana band--raised expectations that Santana would delve back into his early rock repertoire, and those expectations were filled. Songs such as “Gypsy Queen,” “Oye Como Va” and “No One to Depend On” may be oldies, but they were anything but fodder for nostalgia. The initial Santana style is music from a bubbling-hot, polyrhythmic caldron, and it cooks as hot now as it did almost 20 years ago.
That early music will be Santana’s lasting legacy, but he didn’t want to make it the sole focus of the show. He interspersed the older Latin rockers with jazz-rock fusion pieces in a way that flowed reasonably well and yielded a couple of strong moments. Santana’s guitar playing was the unifying link. His passionate, fluid style stands out as his own in any setting.
While Santana is an interactive player who fits into a band, Stevie Ray Vaughan is a master of flash who strives to be most of the show himself. It is a high-wire act that can flop if the would-be guitar hero isn’t resourceful enough. But Vaughan, celebrating his birthday (as well as two years of sobriety), was in peak form--loose, boldly confident and visibly enjoying himself.
At peak moments, his playing was downright predatory--a guitar consuming the aural landscape the way a hot rod eats up a race track. Best of all, for all its deliberate excess, Vaughan’s playing consistently paid heed to the mood and meaning of his songs. His guitar growled on a jealousy-ridden blues, for instance, and it rose in elegiac arcs for “Life Without You,” which occupies the same emotive spot in a Stevie Ray concert as “Purple Rain” holds in a Prince show.
Vaughan’s show was built on old material. After three years without a new studio album, he needs to come up with a new batch of songs to avoid falling into a rut. The greatest guitar heroes--Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and B.B. King--also have written their share of lasting songs. Vaughan can’t make that claim. But as a pure player and a commanding performer, he was heroic enough.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds were tough enough in their set to overcome some serious adversity: For most of the show, Jimmie Vaughan and guest guitarist Duke Robillard were virtually eclipsed in a woeful sound mix. But in front man Kim Wilson, the T-Birds have a singer and harmonica player capable of taking over a show. His efforts, combined with a punchy rhythm section and strong contributions from Double Trouble’s keyboardist, Reese Wynans, made for a muscular show, even though the fast rockers suffered from the lack of a big guitar presence.