Review: Santana revives Woodstock vibes at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg

Tie-dyed fans young and old packed the field to celebrate the golden anniversary of Santana's star-making Woodstock gig.
Published April 19

They didn't hold Woodstock in Florida on the eve of Good Friday '69. And they definitely didn't hold it in a converted soccer stadium.

But if you closed your eyes and soaked in the bathwater-warm air Thursday night in St. Petersburg, it might not have felt too far off.

Especially the longer you inhaled.

"Seriously, we feel you -- and you smell good, too," Carlos Santana told a sold-out crowd on the pitch at Al Lang Stadium. "That was some really good weed over there."

Fifty years after his star-making turn at Woodstock, Santana, it seems, wasn't the only one looking to get frisky with space and time in St. Pete. A day after checking out memorabilia from his Woodstock appearance at the Florida Holocaust Museum -- part of an exhibit honoring his old promoter friend Bill Graham -- Santana turned back the clock for 6,200 fans in tie-dye, throwback Woodstock tees and the occasional pungent haze. They responded by dancing for nearly two hours beneath a nearly full moon, hippies at heart happy to let loose with one of the biggest Woodstock veterans still touring.

Santana's going all-in on 2019 Woodstock nostalgia. He's among the headliners at a 50th anniversary festival in upstate New York this summer, and his set in St. Pete kicked off with Soul Sacrifice, accompanied by vintage footage of his electrifying performance of the same song at Max Yasgur's farm.

With a sanguine look on his face, Santana, 71, coxed a lupine howl from his golden Paul Reed Smith, letting his arms loosen with the music and occasionally casting his face to the sky. His fingers, still nimble, delivered clean tones and trills on the spacey yet sultry Europa; and elsewhere skittered in and out of futuristic fusion territory in ways that would make old collaborators like John McLaughlin and Chick Corea proud.

Santana front-loaded his set with older hits -- the smoky sneak and snarl of Evil Ways, the slithery sizzle of Black Magic Woman, the kinky syncopation of Oye Como Va -- all with his eight-piece backing band chugging and juking behind him. The rhythm was transfixing, mind-melding, turning the row of percussionists behind him into what felt like a six-armed octopus. For Jingo, another song from his Woodstock setlist, a full seven members, including Santana himself, shook or pounded some sort of percussion. And yet the crowd moved no less for Latin-leaning, guiro-clacking numbers like Corazon Espinado and his new single Do You Remember Me.

As the set went on, Santana went into party-band mode, starting with a killer cover of Mos Def's Umi Says led by an absolute monster vocal performance by singer Ray Greene. The Game of Love fell a bit flat -- not having Michelle Branch on hand will do that for you -- but the shimmying Maria Maria sounded fresh as ever, with Santana plucking and pealing on both acoustic and electric guitars.

Santana shared much of his encore with his band, including wife and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, who sang lead on a slappa-da-bass funk cover of John Lennon's Imagine; and guitarist Tommy Anthony, who dialed the interminable Y2K party-starter Smooth back a few decades by interpolating a good chunk of Earth, Wind and Fire's September.

By that point, the show felt less like a voodoo love-in and more like a corporate wellness retreat: Not as dark and dirty, still a reasonable amount of fun. But Santana still had a little '69 magic left to squeeze from his set, closing with 2017's Love, Peace, Happiness, a funky call to "ignite newness" backed by vintage clips of Civil Rights marchers.

Santana didn't have that one back at Woodstock, nor Woodstock '94 or '99. But if he brings it to Woodstock 2019, it won't feel at all out of place. Fifty years later, his fans are still out there seeking peace and freedom. You can smell it in the air.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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