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Santana/PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J./Aug. 23, 2015

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Some may be inclined to respectfully describe Carlos Santana as a guitarist without borders because of the diversity of his influences (rock, blues, Latin jazz, reggae, salsa, hip-hop, et al.) and his frequent collaborations with artists from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

On this clear and humid Sunday night, he and his band delivered their musical message of hope and tolerance with cool conviction to a near-capacity crowd at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Beginning with his career-defining “Soul Sacrifice,” Santana and his band of musical brothers conjured up cool elemental vibes in a rousing two-hours-plus concert that showcased old treasures like “Evil Ways” with more recent hits, among them “Smooth” and “Maria Maria.”

After a beautiful rendition of “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile),” the focus of the evening was turned over to the guitarist’s son, Salvador Santana, who sang (along with soulful vocals by the bewitching Alex Nester) and played keyboards on three of his own compositions from his new album, Fantasy Reality. The songs fit in well and were aided by the loving grace of Salvador’s father on lead guitar.

“Corazon Espinado” and a rousing version of “Jingo” brought the audience members to their feet (once they took the time to extricate themselves from their lawn chairs and place their wine glasses down); and the samba-infused “Foo Foo” was also a highlight. During these and other songs, the inimitable guitarist took time to acknowledge past influences with brief guitar samples (The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” among others).

Throughout the evening, Carlos paused several times to deliver ethereal messages to the crowd, such as “be true to your own divinity” and the more pointed “don’t be boring.” He even took time to recognize past artists like John Lennon and Bob Marley and their messages of peace and love (halting serendipitously to point out someone wearing a Marley T-shirt in the audience). At times he appeared like a PBS self-help guru channeling 1960s psychedelic wisdom, but the sincerity of the words never disrupted the pace of the show. (You might wonder if more than a few people were paying attention.)

There were some offbeat but successful musical choices, like Michael Jackson’s “A Place With No Name” (from his posthumous album Xscape), in which lead singers Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas stirred up the crowd as they invoked the la-la hook from America’s “A Horse With No Name.” A free-range version of The Champs’ bouncy mambo classic “Tequila” added some levity to the proceedings. A cover version of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was well received and gave the band’s horn section a chance to glow in the moonlight; trumpeter Bill Ortiz and trombonist Jeff Cressman (both of whom played with many musical heavyweights, including Steve Winwood) delivered the necessary chops on many of the songs.

The evening concluded with the timeless classics “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” (with Lindsay and Vargas sharing lead vocals) “Oye Como Va” and “Toussaint L’Overture.” These songs were augmented by the solid percussion work of drummer Jose “Pepe” Jiminez, Paoli Mejias and Karl Perazzo. Veteran keyboardist David K. Mathews (whose long list of credits includes Tower of Power and Etta James) elevated the spirit of the instrumentals with energetic drive.

Carlos Santana is intent on saving the world as best he can (a portion of the ticket price goes to his children’s charity Milagro), and with the universal language of his music, and after a concert such as this, he makes his fans feel as if they could also. The key is in the listening.

— By Donald Gavron

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From top to bottom: Carlos Santana, Tony Lindsay, Karl Perazzo and Andy Vargas. All photos by Chris M. Junior

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