Santana's Tel Aviv Concert Was Short on His Signature Soul

Carlos Santana’s performance in Tel Aviv Saturday night was low on the blend of Latin percussion and wailing guitar that has been his secret sauce for 50 years.

Carlos Santana in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, July 30, 2016. Carlos Santana playing electric guitar.
Ofer Vaknin

Impresario Shuki Weiss was right when he told the audience before the concert Saturday night in Tel Aviv that only rarely does one get a chance in Israel to see a musician who has made a genuine contribution to rock music.

Carlos Santana’s twofold contribution to the genre can be summed up in two words: “battery” and “wail,” or in Hebrew hasolela and hayalala. The former refers to the wall of Latin percussion instruments that generates the unstoppable rhythmic foundation of Santana when the band is at its best. There is no rock artist who has used this groove more consistently, comprehensively and characteristically. The wail is of course Carlos Santana’s distinctive guitar sound. 

Predictably, the giant video screens at Hayarkon Park showed frequent close-ups of Santana’s fingers: boring for the non-guitarists in the crowd, perhaps, but possibly edifying. Most guitarists attack the strings from both directions, above and below, more or less equally. But Santana picks mainly from below. Perhaps that’s one of the secrets of the wailing.

Carlos Santana in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, July 30, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

Santana’s two main ingredients, the percussion battery and the wailing, were present and persuasive on the stage in Tel Aviv. The rhythm section — a conga player, a timbale player and a drummer (Cindy Blackman, Santana’s wife) — played with force, momentum and good taste. And the wailing, if not perfect as it was in 1969, still happens when Santana attacks the guitar strings from below. But for the battery and the wail to transmit on the wonderful, one-of-a-kind frequency of Santana at its best, it’s not enough for each to exist separately. They must work together harmoniously: fully blended, fully focused and with no distractions. And that was too infrequent Saturday night. It happened in “Jingo” followed by “Evil Ways” in the middle of the concert and in “Oye Como Va” toward the end. In those wonderful moments, the entirety of the music was condensed into that same dual frequency, battery/wailing, and it drew its power, its validity and its endless beauty from that condensation. But only a fraction of the performance was like that. 

One could even enjoy the less successful majority of the program, but it took a certain effort to ignore quite a long series of shortcomings, disappointing choices and displays of mediocrity. The singers: Santana is a guitarist’s group, and its singers usually have no room to express their full personality, but the two who performed on Saturday didn’t express even a hint of character. Santana’s solos: As expected, there were many of those, and in most of them the musical content was not equal in value to the sound itself. In other words, there were quite a few moments of automatic wailing. The clips: We were forced to watch live the horrifyingly polished videos of “Maria Maria” and “Smooth,” as well as images of African tribal dancing, entirely divorced from their musical and cultural contexts.

Out of context? Santana overdid the allusions, playing passages from other artists’ songs, usually unnecessarily, in about half of his numbers. In some cases it actually ruined the song. Unfortunately, one of those cases was “Black Magic Woman,” one of Santana’s greatest songs, if not the greatest. This song is a lesson in building musical momentum, but at Yarkon Park there wasn’t an ounce of momentum. Carlos Santana began by quoting from the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” which totally disrupted the tension buildup. A terrible waste of a doomsday device. Never mind, I thought. He’ll probably compensate for it with “Soul Sacrifice” in the encore. This tremendous instrumental was played in a very abbreviated form at the start of the performance, as a kind of promise of a full and glorious rendition, with the battery/wailing. But alas, the desire for “Soul Sacrifice” was not consummated. Maybe Santana only sacrifices his soul in performances that have soul. In Saturday’s show there wasn’t enough of it.

Santana. Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, July 30