Playing Latin-infused music, heavy rock and mellow selections that showcased the guitarist’s lyrical side, Latino rocker Carlos Santana and his band rarely paused during the group’s nearly 2½-hour show Friday at the Acura Stage of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Phish, the vastly popular jam band that emerged in the 1980s, will headline the Acura Stage on Saturday, and Santana, who exploded out of the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s, is one of the roots from which Phish and other jam bands grew.
At 66, Santana still performs with vitality. His sonic excursions came easily and naturally to him. As for velocity, his chops are still sharp. There’s also that signature Santana tone, bell-like and sweet, with lots of sustain and a wide vibrato.
Santana last played Jazz Fest in 2008. He said he was delighted to be back.
“Oh, my God,” he said as he looked out from the stage. “It is a joy and honor to be at this most prestigious event.”
Reminiscing about performers from the festival’s earliest days, he said, “Duke Ellington at Jazz Fest. Man, that’s the way to start something.”
Santana also marveled that Mahalia Jackson, the towering gospel singer who was born in New Orleans but spent much of her life in Chicago, was another early Jazz Fest act.
“She is the light divine,” he said.
Some references to New Orleans’ classic hometown R&B artists appeared in Santana’s show, too. Keyboard player David Mathews gave an affectionate nod to Professor Longhair, playing some riffs inspired by “Tipitina” at the electric piano. And Santana said he listened to Huey “Piano” Smith and Clowns’ 1958 hit, “Don’t You Just Know It,” when he was growing up in Tijuana, before his family’s move to San Francisco.
Santana and his band filled their Jazz Fest set with many of his own classics.
Full-length versions of “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va” arrived early. A big band featuring brass and multiple percussionists gave the songs plenty of punch.
The band’s Latin rhythms inspired lots of dancing, though many in the crowd obviously didn’t know a mambo from a samba. They simply danced in whatever ways the music moved them.
Santana’s wife, veteran jazz drummer Cindy Blackman, performed a power-trio set with her husband and bassist Benny Reitveld. Blackman got a well-deserved solo, too. She’s a versatile, mighty drummer.
From the show’s first selection to a climactic “Soul Sacrifice,” it was obvious that Santana still has the fire and the skills that made him a star 45 years ago.