From the start of his Thursday set at the refurbished Joint in Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Carlos Santana made clear what historical moment he hoped to invoke, if not revive. As the 11-piece group got the polyrhythms of Santana’s early hit “Soul Sacrifice” simmering, images flashed across the large screen behind the musicians of an earlier, more famous rendition of the song.
It was from Woodstock, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Providing a thrilling end to an excellent set at the definitive rock festival, that version of “Soul Sacrifice” helped make the guitarist one of the great stars of the hippie era. “Soul Sacrifice” sounded different Thursday night than it did at Woodstock: It was softer-edged, less aggressive and deliberately wild. Santana, now a mellow presence at 61, has come a long way since his reputation-making early days: He’s expanded his Latin-rock fusion sound to more explicitly encompass jazz, African and reggae music, as well as hip-hop-era pop.
His fans have changed too. While many at the Joint literally could have been at Woodstock, the mood they projected had little in common with the muddy free-love-for-all of 1969. The cheer that went up when Santana expressed the hope that President Obama might legalize marijuana and give the resulting tax gains to schoolteachers was audible, but well contained.
This crowd sipped cocktails while sitting in neat rows, dressed in vacation finery: dresses and silicone-smooth hair for the ladies, sport shirts and carefully distressed jeans on the men. Though some women showed decolletage, no one was even remotely naked. Few emulated Santana’s nouveau psychedelic look or relaxed demeanor.
The fact that Santana’s show worked in this setting proves what an unusual rock icon he is. Though it’s been promoted as the first rock residency to hit Las Vegas (apparently Prince, who took a similar extended gig at the Rio in 2006, doesn’t count as a rocker), “Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits” was just as much a dance party and a jazz performance as a conventional rock show.
Sampling from throughout his career, Santana made sure to please with his most recognizable material: “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” and the latter-day chart-toppers “Maria Maria” and “Smooth” all got thorough workouts. For many in the audience, these were the night’s highlights. The long-weekenders got out of their seats and danced when they recognized the songs.
Those hits were generously rendered by Santana, who never scrimps on feeling and warm technique when playing a solo or his trademark honey-dripping runs. His band’s current members, most of whom have been with him for years, took a relaxed approach to the best-known material, not trying to re-create the originals but not worrying about breaking the mold, either.
Standout performers included drummer Dennis Chambers, who was deeply energetic without ever dislodging the groove; trombonist Jeff Cressman, who took a few monster solos; and singers Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, who showed flexibility and flair, sharing the lead parts in what was more often than not a big group singalong.
Lesser-known numbers provided the night’s real highlights. Santana waxed romantic with “Samba Pa Ti,” a contemplative tune built around a gorgeously languid guitar line and, according to its author, meant to inspire compassion and forgiveness. He showed off his classic-rock chops on the feisty “Batuka,” featuring plenty of greasy keyboard work by Chester Thompson and a few Jimi Hendrix-style guitar freakouts.
Also notable was the coda the group added to “Evil Ways” -- “A Love Supreme,” the John Coltrane classic Santana first explored in collaboration with fellow guitar great John McLaughlin in the early 1970s. This was perhaps the first time that the mystical Coltrane was celebrated in a casino.
Whatever song they took as a starting point, Santana and his fellow players always followed it into a groove that was irresistibly Latin and African. With drums, congas, timbales and many other percussion instruments in the mix, this music did not make it easy to sit still. Projected images of all kinds of dancers -- beautiful women, a young child, African ritual celebrants, American street partyers -- encouraged people to rise and move.
That many didn’t might be attributable to the room. The Joint has a strange seating arrangement, at least on the main floor. Metal bars separate various sections, within which are rows of uncomfortable padded folding chairs. Ushers and security guards prowled the aisles, keeping people in those uninviting seats.
If possible, the Hard Rock’s management should consider removing some of those chairs, because what was happening in the back of the room was really interesting. There, couples -- many of them Latino -- broke into elegant partner dancing, doing what is expected when music like Santana’s plays in clubs all over the Eastside of Los Angeles on any given night. Santana’s fusion is, after all, just as fundamentally meant for dancing as is Prince’s.
If this “rock” residency is to succeed -- and it should -- it would be well served by a real dance floor right beneath the men making all those hips sway.