In a recent episode of “The Family Guy,” the show abruptly shifts into one of its trademark digressions for a scene from an Ed Sullivan-style variety show from the 1950s. The announcer introduces Little Richard for his latest hit, “Piano Riff Woo!” Then a cartoon version of Little Richard hammers the piano, calling out “woo!” every few moments. That’s it. Piano riff, woo. It’s pretty close to “Long Tall Sally,” actually.
For those unfamiliar with the guitar stylings of Carlos Santana, his “Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits” show at The Rogue Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel is “Guitar Riff Hey-Ah!” You do feel spellbound at all the solos, all the “hey-ah!” and the way Santana can magically prolong a song like “Smooth” into a 10-minute odyssey. Sometimes you forget just where the rock icon actually started. Sometimes, trying to follow Santana’s improvised guitar flourishes is like getting lost driving in San Francisco: You might not know where you are, but God isn’t it beautiful?
Santana launched his extended residency at new The Joint this week, on Wednesday, and Thursday was media night. I try not to put too much emphasis on crowd response on media night, as many in attendance can be relatively indifferent to what’s happening onstage and are not necessarily fans of the artist. But I came out of this with some skepticism about how Santana is going to be able to fill 3,000 seats (the Joint’s capacity when the folding chairs are set on the floor) over 72 dates in two years. I compare his show most closely to Elton John’s “Red Piano” performances, which recently concluded at The Colosseum. The two are about the same age, hearkening to the same era. They share similar ticket prices (for Santana, before half-tax, surcharges and over-tax, are $79, $89, $129, $155, $229 and $299) and are responsible for filling about the same number of seats. Where Elton benefited from dynamite staging and production effects designed by David LaChappelle, Santana’s performance is mostly a concert show, and he doesn’t have Elton’s hit-stuffed catalog, at least not enough classics to carry a two-hour performance. You get some great archival footage of Santana’s career, especially his Mescaline-fueled set at Woodstock, but it’s not above what you would normally see from Santana during a one-off performance elsewhere. Of course, one of the selling points for Santana at the Hard Rock is that during his residency, he won’t be performing live anywhere west of the Mississippi. I’m not sure hoards of Santana fans are going to trip to Vegas in 2009 when it’s likely he’ll be on the road again in three years. This isn’t a criticism of Santana artistically. He’s wonderful, uniquely gifted and born to play the guitar. Even his interaction with the audience is uncommonly pleasing. At one point, he said he wanted marijuana to be legalized so it could be used to fund education (where, likely, school kids would be taught of the dangers of smoking too much weed). At another moment, he suggested the audience take time to “visit their hearts.” Evidently, many heard that as “visit the bar.”
These shows are a study in adjusted expectations, too. The show I saw last night was dynamite for a single performance. Santana is genuinely spellbinding and stitches together lengthy free-form solos with classics like “Evil Ways” and “Black Magic Woman.” But you don’t gauge the show as an entity unto itself; you’re thinking, “How is this going to work for two years?” AEG Live officials are already explaining that it is a tough time to sell tickets to this type of show, which is true. It’s also too soon to know if they’re decision to anchor this venue with Carlos Santana was a wise business move. Check back after show No. 16. We’ll know then.