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Santana (seen here in 2006) is flying onstage.
Santana (seen here in 2006) is flying onstage.

Music

Santana plays in the present; Winwood sticks with the past Add to ...

Carlos Santana and Steve Winwood

  • At Molson Amphitheatre
  • In Toronto on Sunday

So if Eric Clapton was indeed "God" in 1965, which infers the popular deification of rock stars in general, then Sunday night's pairing of veterans Steve Winwood and Carlos Santana had almost by definition a sort of "Twilight of the Gods" aura to it. For the sake of argument, however, and as much as I have always loved Winwood in all of his band incarnations, we'll assign him the role of the minor deity, saving the more exalted major-deity application to Santana. Debate at leisure.

Steve (then Stevie) Winwood had his first hit when he was 17, singing vocals for the Spencer Davis Group on the now-classic I'm A Man. Since then, he was the driving force in Traffic (no pun intended….well, maybe just a little), a member of supergroup Blind Faith (with, interestingly enough, Eric Clapton) and has had a long and productive solo career that has extended right up to the present day. It is also interesting to note that he has just released a career retrospective entitled Revolutions. No surprise, then, that his opening set came across as very much a Best of Steve, 1966-2010.

Backed by a funky and slick four-piece band, Winwood used the Spencer Davis Group hits I'm a Man and Gimme Some Lovin' to bracket his 75-minute set. In the mid-sixties, these were two of the heaviest hits on the radio at the time, hence their popularity. Time and familiarity have dulled their edge somewhat, but they are still classic rockers, though now with more emphasis on the classic than the rock, and delivered Sunday more as salsafied jam sessions than three-minute slices of rock history.

Winwood's finest moments creatively came in the folk, soul and jazz-tinged Traffic, one of the handful of outfits that truly put the "progressive" in the term progressive rock. This period of his life was represented by such diverse numbers as the blues-rocking Dear Mr. Fantasy, the enigmatic 40,000 Headmen and the soulful Empty Pages (a great example of Winwood's unique and very distinctive "English coyote" soul/blues vocal technique), all performed here mid-set. One of Winwood's signature tunes, at least according to classic rock radio, the soulful and doleful Blind Faith number Can't Find My Way Back Home, proved to be a crowd favourite.

From his nine-release solo career, we basically got crumbs, represented by the sprightly Grammy Award-winning Higher Love. But the paucity of material from the past decade of solo work suggests, quite rightly, that Winwood's solo career has engendered for him little more than a cult following, though a happy one at that, and his performance here was extremely well received.

Carlos Santana, on the other hand, managed to keep his old core audience, then built on it by cleverly integrating popular new artists such as Rob Thomas, Everlast and Wyclef Jean as guest vocalists on successful releases such as Supernatural. This merits him a 10 N.D.R. score (Niester Deification Rating), as opposed to Winwood's 8.

Xochipilli? The Aztec god of art, games, beauty, dance, flowers, maize and song. It works perfectly, because Santana makes a beautiful and unique brand of art, his music is sometimes playful, but you can always dance to it, his outfits are usually quite flowery, some of his song interpretations ( Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va) are popular standards and, all in all, he is an a-maize-ing performer. (Sorry.)

Like Winwood, he opened with a quick trip down memory lane, leading in with a terrific rock-fusion jam that utilized every aspect of his 10-piece band. Lest he lose the youngsters, however, he quickly moved into the hit Maria Maria, the Supernatural number that featured the little-known R&B duo The Project D&B and helped to drive the album to mega-million sales status. The other major hit from the album, Smooth, was saved for the end of the regular set.

In between these touchstone numbers, Santana (being a deity and all) basically flew. There were lots of familiar moments from his slew of albums (unexpected stops at No One To Depend On and his take on Coltrane's A Love Supreme, among others), but these were basically used as jumping-off points for his unique trademark guitar soloing. Probably 80 per cent of Santana's performance on this night was pure instrumental magic, with Carlos often taking a back seat to his talented soloists, and with road vocalists Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas getting only sporadic opportunities.

And even though Santana and his namesake band have played numbers such as Oye Como Va, Black Magic Woman and Evil Ways thousands of times, he (and they) still managed to breathe new life and energy into each one. By the show's conclusion, Santana's trademark Woodstock T-shirt was dark with sweat, and he even looked a little fatigued. Proving that, in the end, rock gods are only human.

The Universal Tone Tour, featuring Carlos Santana and Steve Winwood, stops at the Ottawa Blues Fest on Wednesday, July 14, and at Montreal's Bell Centre on Thursday, July 15.

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