Monday, August 18, 2014

Supernatural Santana Dominates Double-Bill with All-Too-Smooth Rod Stewart -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Rod Stewart
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
August 16, 2014
@@@ for Rod Stewart
@@@@@ for Santana

"People keep asking me, 'What do you have in common with Rod Stewart?'

"We both love to make women crazy."
-- Carlos Santana, from the stage

In addressing how his namesake band wound up on a theoretically co-headlining tour--though they always play first--with Rod Stewart, the great Santana was clearly being cheeky, but perhaps also intentionally coy.

He certainly could have referenced how he and Stewart are both musical legends whose careers have lasted non-stop since the 1960s, with their (critical) glory days of roughly 1968-1973 earning them regard as one of rock's greatest guitarists and vocalists, respectively, of all-time.

And though the classy Carlos Santana, still one of the coolest people in the world, hands down, clearly wouldn't have been course enough to defame his tour mate--whom he also described as a good friend--he could well have referenced his band's early classic "Soul Sacrifice" in suggesting that Rod, comparatively, at least from a musical sense, had long ago lost his.

That's undoubtedly more my opinion than Santana's, who spoke repeatedly from the stage about how his generation was one that valued, embraced and championed peace and love.

But though I was delighted to have only paid $39.50 plus ticketing fees for over three hours of music from two icons I had previously seen just once each, theirs was clearly a mismatched pairing. (Reviews from other tour stops corroborate my opinion.)

The shame is, it really didn't have to be.

Having received an email that the show would start promptly at 7:30 as ticketed, with no additional opening act, my friend Paolo and I were in our seats at the back of the Allstate Arena comfortably before then, following a ritualistic dinner at the nearby IHOP. 

I routinely aim to get to any show well before the start time, even if the opening act is one I don't know, but there were fans undoubtedly still shuffling in from the parking lots and buying their first rounds of beer (there would be a constant parade past our lack-of-legroom seats all night) when the lights went down and Santana--the band and the man--came onstage at, per my watch, 7:27pm.

Though years of attending concerts at the United Center makes the Allstate Arena feel considerably smaller than it did in my youth (when it was known as the Rosemont Horizon), it has long been notorious for poor acoustics.

But even with three drummers playing simultaneously, including one on bongos, the mix was superb, and from note one the band sounded fantastic.

Although I have long enjoyed Santana's unique fusion of rock 'n roll and Latin (and other worldly) rhythms in recorded form, as was reiterated instantly and thoroughly on Saturday night--reminding me of my similar take upon seeing them for the first time, in Milwaukee in 2003--as a live act they are truly, even surprisingly, phenomenal.

Not only at 67 is Carlos Santana clearly still one of the world's greatest musicians--it was an absolute joy, again and again, to hear him play guitar--but the musicality and sonic quality of the entire band was demonstrably astonishing. (Refer to the Santana website for the current lineup that seemed to be present in Rosemont, although Wikipedia notes that the classic lineup was recently reunited. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed original Santana vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Rolie as part of Ringo's All-Starr Band.)

As of this writing, there is not yet a setlist posted on for Saturday's show, but as per this recent show, I believe "Touissant L'Overture" was the opener, and the typical tour set largely followed.

Notably, August 16, 2014 was the 45th anniversary of the day Santana played Woodstock and although I think they left off "Soul Sacrifice" on Saturday (it's been played in the encore at most recent shows, but wasn't here; if slipped in earlier I was oblivious), both "Jingo" and "Evil Ways"--the latter not a recent setlist staple--harkened back to the historic festival, where I believe Santana first really came to fame.

A pair of male singers, Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, aptly recreated the vocals of Santana's past glories, from "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye como va" to "Maria Maria" and "Smooth," and not only were the three drummers notably superb, a fourth--Carlos' wife, Cindy Blackman Santana--replaced one of them for a brief spurt that included a terrific drum solo.

After their 90-minute set, near the end of which Carlos urged the crowd to "Make every day the best day of your life," I turned to Paolo and said that Rod Stewart would need to be incredible to top, or even compete with, Santana's performance.

Appreciating the unusually large contingent (for a rock concert in Rosemont) of older Hispanic fans--clearly drawn by Santana, whose leader is one of the greatest cultural heroes of Mexican descent--I wondered if Rod might deliver a show more in line with his bawdy and grittier rock roots than his foppish pop leanings since the late '70s.


Unlike Carlos Santana, who with his band had taken the stage with no fanfare nor even a spotlight, the Rod Stewart show began with the raising of a curtain to reveal his dandily-dressed band (eventually including  a trio of shimmying female singers and a similarly-adorned brass section) as the Magnificent Seven theme blared, followed by a Motownish vamp as Rod ambled onstage.

I hoped this meant he would open with "This Old Heart of Mine," as he occasionally has, but more to his recent wont he opted for the disco-ish "Infatuation" from 1984.

If not one of my favorite songs, it was a hit and likely one many who came mainly for Rod were happy to hear. But rather than following up Santana's sizzling set with, say, a blazing "Every Picture Tells a Story"--which opens his 1971 masterpiece album of the same name--Stewart showed from the get-go that his would be a Vegas-type act largely in a pop and adult contemporary vein.

I understand that this is what Rod Stewart does, and has long done, and he sells out arenas worldwide doing it. And, going in at least, the setlist I noted seemed preferable to one laden with pop standards from Rod's multiple Great American Songbook albums--and seemed to speak more to a rock 'n roll show.

But my problem wasn't so much with the songs that were included (or left out) than with the way they were delivered. (It also didn't help that the sound mix was initially rather poor, though it subsequently improved.)

Although on paper, the trio of tunes that followed "Infatuation"--Sam Cooke's "Having a Party," "You Wear It Well" (from 1972) and a cover of Bonnie Tyler's Stewart-sounding "It's a Heartache"--seemed solid enough, I couldn't help jotting down notes that said "no soul," "too slick" and "Vegas act."

And this was before Rod's two costume changes.

Things got a bit better with "Tonight's the Night" and Stewart's bringing Santana on-stage to accompany him on Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," though the choice not only failed to let Rod roar like he once did alongside Jeff Beck, it reiterated how much more awesome Carlos Santana is at this point than Rod Stewart.

Still, at age 69, Stewart, his voice and his legendary hair are all in great shape, and it was fun to hear him sing "Stay With Me" after mentioning that he and Ronnie (Wood) often talk about a Faces reunion, that "still might happen."

Later in the show, with a Chicago-based string section brought onstage for an acoustic set, not even Stewart's schmaltz could ruin moving takes on "The First Cut is the Deepest" (by Cat Stevens) and "Have I Told You Lately" (by Van Morrison).

A new song, "Can't Stop Me Now," off 2013's Time album was actually one of the best of the night, for in acknowledging that many--including me--had never heard it before, Stewart made a point of really selling it.

Coming off considerably worse, in my eyes, was Rod's singing "Rhythm of My Heart" as the video screens behind him showed images of war. He had led into the song by dedicating it to the American, British and Canadian soldiers of World War II, but rather than delivering it as a stark Scottish march complete with bagpipes, it sounded like pop pap very much at odds with the gripping graphics.

Though Rod repeatedly reminded the crowd that he had played Chicago not long ago--last October at the United Center, with Steve Winwood more as an opening act than co-headliner; I wasn't there--and kept saying he would "play some different things," in looking at that setlist, it seems the most significant change is that we didn't get to hear "Reason to Believe."

As it was, a main-set closing singalong of "Maggie May" was the only song performed from Every Picture Tells a Story. Before that, he booted soccer balls into the audience during "Hot Legs," with the video screens dutifully letting us know that he had hand-signed every one.

I certainly wouldn't be shocked, or even offended, if some serious Rod Stewart fans who were at the show stumble across this review and scream profanities at it (and me), along the lines of "You effing idiot, this is what Rod has been doing for years, and he's still effing fantastic."

Honestly, if you love latter-day Rod Stewart, I sincerely hope you loved his part of the show.

And perhaps it's to his credit that he didn't feel any need to change his act in deference to the current double bill.

But not only was he fuzzy about others' rock 'n roll history--in introducing a nice rendition of his cover of "I Don't Want to Talk About It" by Crazy Horse, Rod said they were a band that "Neil Young used to be in," which isn't exactly true--in my estimation, he continues to considerably shortchange his own. 

Not that is the be-all, end-all, but of material released from 1968 through 1976, eleven Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck Group or Faces albums (on which he sang) are rated 5 or 4-1/2 stars out of 5 on that site.

After that period, only a single Rod Stewart album--1981's Tonight I'm Yours--is given even 4 stars, and 23 are given 3 stars or less, several no more than 2.

So while I can't deny that I stood and danced during the show-closing "Do You Think I'm Sexy," I'm not the only one who feels Stewart hasn't created much of substance since 1978, or perhaps even including the year of that lightning-Rod of a #1 hit.

And though I'm also not saying that I--or likely all that many in the sold out arena--would have wanted him to mine his early material all that deeply, given the Santana twin-bill less than a year after his last solo gig in town, it would seem to have made sense for Rod to deliver a harder-edged rock show.

Give me "Every Picture Tells a Story," (I Know) I'm Losing You," "Gasoline Alley," "Handbags and Gladrags," one or two more Faces romps (perhaps "Miss Judy's Farm" or "Pool Hall Richard") and maybe Carlos Santana replicating Jeff Beck on "Shapes of Things," "Spanish Boots" or a great Chicago blues cover, and Rod Stewart could easily have dazzled me every bit as much as Santana.

Or close enough for rock 'n roll.

As it was, my $39.50 was well-spent after just 90 minutes of music that would extend for another 100.

So it wasn't as if seeing Rod Stewart was much of a sacrifice, it's just that my soul was only further enriched for about a third of the time he spent onstage.

Which, of course, ended with a glitzy curtain coming down.

Here's the best Santana clip from Saturday that I could find on YouTube:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was there. Santana opened with soul sacrafice and used a woodstock film clip on the back screen. Are you sure you were there. Your reveiw was not quite right.