Ask Carlos Santana a simple conversation-starting question like, “How are you?,” and he manages to give a thoughtful answer.
“I am grateful,” he says.
Not “fine,” or “busy,” or “keepin’ on keepin’ on.” For Santana, grateful overrides everything.
Santana is forever grateful, always in that sense of spirit, and never is that more evident than today, as he prepares for a two-year residency at House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. The guitar legend formally announced last week his run of 80 shows at the House of Blues, a press event actually staged at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in L.A. Scheduling required the announcement to be made there instead of here, but the details of the shows -- and Santana’s presence -- were what mattered.
Santana starts his run at a reconfigured House of Blues on May 2. The show is lavishly titled, “An Intimate Evening With Santana: Greatest Hits Live -- Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow.” A total of 31 dates are on the books for this year, with nine to be slotted in as those dates sell out. Tickets start at $89 and went on sale Saturday at the House of Blues box office (call 800-745-3000) and on the Ticketmaster website.
The House of Blues capacity and seating chart will be different for the Santana residency. The capacity will be drawn down to 1,236 from about 1,800, as VIP table seating is planned for the House of Blues floor to give the venue a more club-style feel. A new LED screen and sound-and-lighting package also are being installed at the venue.
Though Santana performed a similar set of shows at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel from 2009-2011, there are distinct characteristics for the House of Blues performances. The size of the venue is the most evident, as the Joint seated about 3,000 for Santana’s shows. Another is the exclusivity arrangement House of Blues officials and Santana himself agreed upon for the two-year Las Vegas residency. At the Joint, Santana was not permitted to headline at any venue west of the Mississippi. At House of Blues, only three states are out of play: Nevada, Arizona and California.
“I can sit in, personally, with artists at the Hollywood Bowl,” Santana explains. “But the Santana band cannot headline at the Hollywood Bowl. But the only place you can see this type of intimate show is in Las Vegas.”
During a 20-minute, one-on-one interview in one of the darkened enclaves at the House of Blues L.A. club, Santana was characteristically whimsical and forthcoming about the new set of shows. The highlights as Santana mused about his freewheeling approach to performing and what it’s like living in Las Vegas:
On the loosely structured set list for each show: “What makes it a different experience is that it’s new and fresh each night. We’re going to have an intro, we’re going to have an ending, but in the middle, we will always invoke the unknown,” he says. “I learned this from (jazz saxophone great) Wayne Shorter, who was in my house a lot, how you allow the middle of a concert not to have anything set.
“That’s why this couldn’t work with the Circo du Soleil (employing the Spanish pronunciation of “circus”) because they rely on precision and perfection. … Right now, for me, I need to dance with the unknown, where there is no set list, nobody knows what key or what tempo, and that’s the beautiful part to have in the set.”
On the likelihood of inviting special guests to perform with him on the House of Blues stage: “I plan to have a Genius Week, where we invite, like, Wayne Shorter, Herbie (Hancock), Harry Belafonte, Placido Domingo, you know, just make an invitation. I want to be able to have different weeks, different months, try different things,” he says. “I want to do a whole week of just American Indian things, African, honor the people from India, because Santana can. I am one of the most diverse, universal musicians that there is.
“Most people play just one color in the rainbow, you know? We can go from Andrea Bocelli to Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, invite the females. It’s not wishful thinking or pipe dreams. For me, it’s reality.”
On the type of venues he prefers to play: “You are talking to a person who played at Woodstock, who played for 550,000 people who went ‘whoosh’ with us. But I think that, when I close my eyes, it doesn’t matter whether I’m at Woodstock or Caesars Palace or the House of Blues or a parking lot,” he says. “I could be in Jerusalem or at Carnegie Hall, it doesn’t matter to me. I just close my eyes, and it just goes, you know? Sure, people’s egos will say, ‘I’m playing Caesars Palace, man, the best place in town!’ But if it’s empty, it don’t matter, you know?
“If you’re playing a full house and people leave with a feeling of fulfillment, then whether it’s Woodstock or a parking lot -- I honor the places I am playing, and I am honored to play there.”
On what songs will be worked into his flexible performing format: “We will play everything people want to hear, oh yeah. I know that when I went to see Sting or James Brown, there are certain things I need to hear because I grew up with them.”
“But I also love it when they take me to places that are very unexpected,” he says. “Like the other day, I just discovered, for the first time, ‘Stranger in Moscow’ by Michael Jackson, and I played it, like, at least 75 times in a row. I couldn’t stop. Oh my God, this song is incredible. If Miles Davis was alive, he would definitely be recording this song, like he did ‘Human Nature.’ People need to discover ‘Stranger in Moscow.’ It is a supreme song.”
On the possibility of imparting his political views from the stage during an election campaign: “I am very grateful for the way President Barack Obama articulates when he addresses the American people. I live in the United States, I have freedom of speech, and I have the wisdom to say things that are only complimentary of the social experiment of the United States,” he says. “I don’t care, personally, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, as long as they have the integrity to really heal the nation, and not to be a billboard next to the freeway that only projects what rich people tell them to say.
“I plan to only say words that can magnify positive solutions that benefit all mankind. There are certain things that benefit people on the planet, not just rich, white, greedy people. Or, rich, black, greedy people (laughs). Or greedy people of any color.”
On why he is so fond of Las Vegas, where he has lived for nearly three years: “One thing is, I notice, in people’s eyes, caring for other human beings. There are organizations that help needy people, like Three Square (food bank), Andre Agassi’s (college preparatory) school, the Boys & Girls Clubs and a bunch of other places that I don’t even know,” he says. “I don’t mind promoting that Las Vegas is a community that has passion for compassion. That’s one area that I love. And Las Vegas is clean, most places I drive are clean, and it’s important to keep it clean. … I don’t mind implementing discipline in order to beautify your city. I drive to Red Rock, and it’s clean and beautiful. It’s the opposite of where I have lived in California, even in Marin, the roads are filthy. ... I ask, ‘What happened to all this money we’ve been paying (in tolls) at the Golden Gate Bridge? They tax us like crazy, and we don’t see anything.
“They keep closing schools and keep building more prisons. I don’t want to play that game, so I moved to Las Vegas because people want to make a difference in creating a standard and holding it.”