It's hard to say what makes a man a legend — until you see him at work.
Santana proved why he has been lauded as one of the best performers of the last half-century, drawing on old and new hits to give the 74,161 in attendance a reason to dance in the aisles in what was hands-down one of the best performances at RodeoHouston 2019.
Carlos Santana made his name as the ringleader of a group of talented players that emphasized psychedelic rock meshed seamlessly with broad strokes of Latin and African rhythms, American blues, and jazz. He gained fame during the turbulent late '60s and early '70s as an artist that could bring together fans of all backgrounds, appearing at the most famous and infamous festivals in the history of modern music. That includes landmark sets at the original Woodstock (where he apparently dropped acid before getting on stage) and at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival.
But his second act came in the late '90s and early aughts when he successfully brought his eclectic vision to new audiences by teaming up with the most notable pop stars of the day, producing his biggest hits in his career, albeit in more diluted versions of his high energy, early heyday.
So would the 71-year-old performer rely on the songs more familiar to modern audiences or would he bring back the groove of earlier tunes beloved by Santana die-hards? Thankfully, the answer proved to be both.
Getting a late start after 9 pm, Santana emerged on stage with a nine-piece backing band and leaned into his back catalogue, a video of that Woodstock '69 show playing overhead as he kicked into the three-song mini-suite from his self-titled debut: the hard-charging "Soul Sacrifice," followed by the African rhythms of "Jingo," and the timeless "Evil Ways," which segued into "A Love Supreme" from 1973 album Love Devotion Surrender.
The crowd gave their biggest approval of the early evening for Santana's most recognizable pre-1999 hit, "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen" from the 1970 masterpiece Abraxas, a breathtaking display of guitar heroics. The just as great "Oy Como Va" from the same album followed suit, it's contagious bongo-led Latin shuffle reaching the press box on the eighth story of NRG.
Santana's band kept the energy high, with two vocalists, two guitarists, a bass player, keyboard player, and three percussionists, highlighted by his wife and Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindi Blackman Santana, the heat rising in NRG thanks to the extreme tightness of the group as a unit. Of course, the band leader had plenty of time in the spotlight, and Santana displayed a tremendous touch on his PRS guitar, a virtuosity that moved millions of albums and took home countless awards.
The night then shifted toward the pop hits of later years, nearly all of them Grammy winners. These included the easy listening Michelle Branch duet "Game of Love" from 2001's Shaman, the Wyclef Jean-produced "Maria Maria" and "Corazon Espinado" from mega-selling, award-winning 1999 LP Supernatural. The set then shifted back in time to 1971's “Toussaint L’Overture,” Santana showcasing the best guitar chops of the evening, including an amazing segment of the classic Beatles tune "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
His work with the Isley Brothers on 2017's Power of Peace also got two songs on the setlist, bringing some welcome funk to the proceedings with "Are You Ready" and set closer, "Love, Peace, Happiness." It would be a mistake not to mention the inescapable behemoth pop hit, "Smooth," which was named the second biggest song of the 20th century by Billboard magazine, cementing Santana's legacy as one of the best living performers. No doubt, the legend was nothing but smooth and radiated it throughout the show.
Cheekily ending the show with a "Deep in the Heart of Texas" riff, Santana and his band humbly walked off-stage to a huge ovation, slowly making their way through the dirt into the inner bowels of NRG Stadium, no SUV needed.
RodeoHouston 2019 may have the most diverse lineup of any previous edition, but only one show can rightfully claim it brought as many diverse sounds together as wonderfully as Santana did. The NRG stage had the perfect performer to grace its star-shaped stature on Wednesday night.
“Evil Ways"/"A Love Supreme”
“Black Magic Woman"/"Gypsy Queen”
“Oye Como Va”
“Game of Love”
“Do You Remember Me (Mona Lisa)”
“Are You Ready People”
“Love, Peace, Happiness”