Santana European Tour Blog – Part 3 (By Gary Rashid)

For those who have been anxiously awaiting an update with regard to the current tour in Europe, please accept these bloggers most sincere apologies. When not engaged in travel or photographing a performance, there are just too many enjoyable distractions happening on the tour that interrupt the concerted effort that writing requires.

When an opportune moment does finally seem to manifest where I can assemble my thoughts and experiences, such as a long bus ride from the hotel to a distant venue, a typical sort of distraction may come in the form of an incredible listening session with Carlos & Raul Rekow (Santana’s amazing conga player extraordinaire). You definitely want to be paying attention when Raul shares his Latin percussion playlist from the contents of his iPod. More than just ‘hanging out’, this is a unique learning experience not to be missed.

It’s not unusual to have buses arranged for long trips that are equipped with, among other amenities, lounges featuring excellent soundsystems. This situation has occurred, to my great delight, more than a few times on this tour. It’s a unique, enlightening and insightful opportunity to hear and learn where musicians derive their musical, inspiration, enjoyment and stimulation. Those shared inspirations manifest anytime Carlos and the band take the stage as a unique and exceptional musical experience will certainly unfold. The audiences will, expectedly, react with great exhilaration and applause. A performance of high energy and creative excellence will always follow the demandingly high musical expectations that Carlos and the band demand of themselves while the audiences are always guaranteed a very special musical moment.

Where my last blog left off, the band was headed to Leipzig, Germany for a much- deserved day of repose from performing. After a string of six straight performances, everyone needed an opportunity to rest and recharge their batteries. Very few people, unfortunately, have the opportunity to intimately observe and understand how much energy any serious musician has to conjure for a performance, especially within the institution of the high-octane musical entity known as Santana (which is unquestionably unique).  Typically Santana performances run approximately two-and-a half hours. This requires an almost super-human level of physical, mental and creative endurance from the musicians that is impossible not to admire.

Just as astounding as the effort is that is made by the musicians, the somewhat invisible efforts generated by the production staff can be even more mind-boggling (this occurs only after a very talented and hard working management team have pre-arranged performance schedules and all required logistics that support the band when they go ‘on the road’ to play. Many decisions have to be made with regard to travel arrangements, hotel stays and about another million miscellaneous details!).

The combination of the Santana Production team combined with that of the local crews insures that every aspect of preparation for the shows, including technical integrity during the performance, is transparently addressed and executed to the highest standard. There are so many technical requirements that go into producing a Santana concert. Contemplate the objective of setting up an unimaginable amount of sound equipment (one system that supports the band on stage as well as another that delivers the sound to the audience), preparing and maintaining each musician’s personal musical gear, video, catering, security and so much more. To facilitate a demand like this for a single show is impressive enough and yet the production team will repeat this effort in a different location almost daily for five weeks!

The entire management and production staff that supports Carlos and the band has already given a dedicated and tireless performance before the band ever sets foot on the stage.  On average a ‘European tour’ for a band ‘roadie’ will mostly consist of many continuous hours of challenging, hard work (where there is virtually no room for error) for which they will be rewarded with 6 to 12 hour (or more) bus rides in between shows as they transport from city to city one step ahead of the band. They remain blind to the curse of every extreme weather condition imaginable and they are always fully prepared when it’s time for the band to make music. It’s not a choice, it’s a given.

A day off is a luxury that production-crew members rarely enjoy. Their commitment to facilitate the standard of excellence that Santana brings to the stage is unfaltering. These are truly the unsung and, unfortunately, much less obvious heroes of the process. Certainly the immediate beneficiaries of their efforts (the musicians) hold them in very high esteem, which seems to be their most coveted reward – with the exception of the roar of the audience’s applause at the culmination of much effort and a job well done.

In Leipzig with just one day off (that included several hours of travel) everybody was recharged and ready to play again. Despite a brief interlude of moderate rain, the show in Leipzig was yet another tour success. Completely oblivious to the bit of rain that had dampened the outdoor venue, the audience savored yet another delicious offering from Carlos and the band.

One special unrehearsed highlight for this show was the inclusion of an extremely gifted and popular saxophonist and teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area, Richard Howell. Richard performed on several songs and offered an inspired solo when Carlos spontaneously invoked John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Richard’s beautiful tone and his ability to instantaneously find his musical footing in this completely unrehearsed moment was a further testament to his exceptional musical talent. Everyone delighted in Richard’s performance, especially many members of the band who have played with, and are friends with, Richard back in the Bay Area. Onstage there was cause for great amusement when Carlos played several refrains of the theme from “The Pink Panther” in response to some communication error with bassist Benny Rietveld. A keen sense of humor and camaraderie is a very consistent and necessary part of the landscape when everyone is out ‘on the road’.

The next stop for the band was the very beautiful city of Baden Baden, Germany where the band would reside for the next couple of days during which time they will make appearances in two different locations. It would take a 2.5-hour bus ride from the hotel in Baden Baden to deliver Carlos and the band to their next scheduled performance at an outdoor venue in the city of Bad Mergentheim.

It was a warm summer evening with, gratefully, no rain in sight. The stage was set facing a beautiful plaza and surrounded by many classic examples of old European architecture, a spattering of green trees and a gorgeous old church. Among the highlights of this particular performance, Carlos would improvisationally explore Led Zepplin’s “Stairway To Heaven” (which obviously delighted the German fans). Towards the end of the band’s set Carlos observed the zeal from some of his ‘younger fans’ at the front of the stage and invited the security guards to hoist more than a half dozen children onto the stage where his young guests managed their tambourine & maraca duties admirably. It’s not unusual to find many adults with their young children in tow to experience the Santana magic! After the last refrain of “Into The Night” Carlos and the entourage would exit directly from the stage and let the exhilaration of another excellent performance dissipate on the two and a half hour bus ride back to the hotel.

Carlos and the band would play the next night at another outdoor venue just outside of Baden Baden, at Rennplatz Iffezheim, which is a very prestigious looking horseracing track. Once again, a light rain tried but failed to dampen the spirits of the eager audience that populated the outdoor track. The only thing more diversely colorful than the bouncing umbrella’s of the dedicated audience was the multi-hued and energetic performance delivered by Carlos and the band.

As with all of the Santana shows on this tour, the audience was treated to a smorgasbord of Santana hits and improvisation for more than two hours. This included an inspired, soulful and deeply moving vocal tribute from Tony Lindsay singing Marvin Gayes “God Is Love”. The band reprised an upbeat, gospel flavored tune that they played while in the UK titled “Right On Be Free (a favorite of mine!). Carlos even managed to squeeze in an improvised version of a great classic “Besame Mucho”. The Santana Band always play with great intensity but there seems to be a tacit understanding between Carlos and the rest of the band that any audience that is willing to endure unpleasant weather conditions is going to be compensated with just a little extra effort from everyone on stage.

The next day would be a travel/day-off to Monte Carlo, Monaco on the French Riviera. Monte Carlo is, undeniably, an exceptionally beautiful and somewhat exclusive destination. Here the band enjoyed, after a lot of hard work, a relaxed setting for a few days in a resort hotel situated on Monte Carlo Bay where everyone could enjoy some warm weather, a nice pool, the Mediterranean Sea and an incredible vista of Monte Carlo with it’s looming mountains surrounding the enclave.

It’s not hard to understand why Monte Carlo attracts a healthy population of wealthy and famous residents. The next two performances would be presented in a very small venue adjacent to the hotel the band was staying in and would certainly be one of the more interesting settings for a concert. For Santana, the venue was an atypically small but elegant nightclub that accommodates only about 900 people. This very exclusive engagement would include a gourmet, sit-down dinner before the show for the well-heeled patrons that would attend. From the first note it was easy to tell that Carlos and the band would have no trouble getting the audience out of their seats and dancing between the tables – it was time to ‘swing-the-bling’! Carlos and the band delivered their high energy, soulful and inspired musical set without compromise. Show number one included a very passionate rendition of Concierto De Arjanjuez featuring the always-impressive Bill Ortiz on trumpet.

A birthday celebration was in order for Brian Montgomery, one of the band’s hard working crewmembers, (possibly one of the band’s most reliable monitor mixers of all time). The band delivered a rousing version of “You’re Still A Young Man” to Brian – an old Tower of Power classic that a certain keyboard player, Chester Thompson, has intimate familiarity with! When you are a part of the Santana organization you truly are part of a family – and this family relishes the opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge important moments of each family member.

As with show number one from the night before, the band served up another stellar performance on the second night. Carlos, as always, improvised beautifully throughout the evening. A few notable highlights were the inclusion of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, Miles Davis “Capri” and “Samba Pa Ti” (always a crowd-pleaser). It seemed inevitable that a few interesting people of notoriety would make their way back stage after the performance to praise Carlos for his incredible performance. Back in his dressing room Carlos graciously accepted the company of ATP number three ranked tennis player Novak Djokovich as well as Prince Albert of Monaco. Both expressed great admiration for Carlos and the performance of the band.

Prince Albert, who happens to be global advisor to Orphans International, was apparently very impressed with Carlos’ charity work and expressed an interest in Architects Of A New Dawn, a concept that Carlos has long held for a 24 hour TV channel that would represent the diametric opposite of CNN, exhibiting the positive side of human existence by purveying beauty, grace, excellence and spiritual awareness. People from all walks of life always seem hungry to probe Carlos looking for his supernatural gift of inspiration.

With two more successful shows under-the-belt it was off to Locarno, Switzerland for a very brief visit for another outdoor concert festival titled “Under the Moon and Stars”. Once again the band would be on a stage in a cobblestone plaza in the main part of the old city center. There actually was a real moon and real stars shining above the stage for another signature Santana performance. The plaza was jammed with adoring Santana fans and a few lucky people, that I assume occupied residences that ringed the plaza, had an extraordinary vantage point from the comfort of their colonial balconies.

Suffice to say, the group would next travel to Dusseldorf, Germany for a five-day stay beginning with a travel/day-off, two outdoor festivals, one in Weert, The Netherlands and the other in Werchter, Belgium. One more show would follow the outdoor festivals at an indoor venue in Dusseldorf. The stay in Dusseldorf would conclude with a much needed and enjoyable day off.

Some of the other notable artist scheduled for the outdoor festivals would include The Bangles, Steve Lukather, Crowded House, Tokio Hotel, James Blunt and others. In Weert, at the Bospop Festival, a dear friend, musical legend and supreme blues artist, Buddy Guy, came by to visit Carlos, say hello and get a big hug. If Buddy hadn’t been scheduled to play at almost the same time on an opposing stage that was quite a distance from the stage where Santana would perform, it’s most certain there would have been a great jam!

The band wrapped up their performance schedule in Dusseldorf with a rousing performance by Carlos and the band, happy to have the stage all to themselves once again, allowing the musical set to stretch out to it’s more usual duration of over two hours (festival concerts, unfortunately, usually dictate that the band must cut the length of their set to accommodate the performances of the other artists – not something Carlos really doesn’t like to do but is happy to comply with when necessary).

It’s almost guaranteed that the remaining balance of this year’s memorable European tour for 2008 will end much too quickly. Certainly Carlos and every associated musician and crew member will deserve a well deserved rest that will after the last show on this musically rich and storied European leg.

Before anyone enjoys that rejuvenating experience, there are still a few amazing moments yet to come while Carlos and the band wrap up their business in Europe for this year with forthcoming shows in Malmo, Sweden; Pori, Findland; and a grand finale performance in St. Petersburg, Russia which will coincide with a very special birthday celebration for our fearless and triumphant leader – Carlos Santana!