Santana + Michael Franti & Spearhead: 14 September - Austin

It's billed as The Sounds of Collective Consciousness Tour and not a moment too soon for a planet desperately in need of a stronger collective consciousness. It's quite simply a match made in rock 'n' roll heaven.

Michael Franti & Spearhead

Santana + Michael Franti & Spearhead

City: Austin
Venue: The Moody Theater at ACL Live
Date: 2011-09-14

Many headliners put little thought or care into selecting the opening act for their tour, and sometimes life is made difficult for the opener by not giving them full sound or lighting. But legendary guitar master Carlos Santana has long been known as one of rock's most spiritual practitioners, so it's fitting to see him out on the road this year with one of the modern generation's most socially conscious musicians in Michael Franti.

It's billed as The Sounds of Collective Consciousness Tour and not a moment too soon for a planet desperately in need of a stronger collective consciousness to stem the tide of greedheads that seek to control the world. It's quite simply a match made in rock 'n' roll heaven.

Spearhead's set is heavy on their poppier material, a direction they've been headed in for the past couple years. But Franti has been around the block several times doing the Rage Against the Machine type of thing, so you can't fault the man for following his muse in a shinier direction during these dark times. There's no “Rock the Nation” or “Bomb the World” rants against the system, but there's a feel good vibe that's hard to resist.

“Everyone Deserves Music” sets the tone with a universal call for the spiritual transcendence that only music can deliver across all language boundaries. “I'll Be Waiting” samples the guitar part from U2's “Bad” to create an uplifting vibe that shimmers with heart and soul. “Yell Fire” comes closest to conjuring the incendiary socio-political vibe that put Franti on the map. The tune ignites the crowd as always with riffs that brilliantly bite Queen's “We Will Rock You” while Franti sings of legalizing marijuana, never making a deal with the devil and how “Revolution will come!” It's easily one of the best songs of the young 21st century. The band closes out the set on a lighter note with Franti inviting kids and senior citizens alike up onstage for 2008's bouncy hit single “Say Hey (I Love You)”. Franti even hands the mic to a precocious youngster named Milo who also joined the band onstage at Stubbs BBQ last year, which he was only to proud to remind the audience of.

The stage is now set for the main event and Santana and company waste no time in getting down to business with their hard-hitting hip-hop cover of AC/DC's “Back in Black”. The energy level immediately soars with the killer blend of metal riffage and hip-hop mojo. Sung by influential rapper Nas on Santana's latest album, the vocals are re-created nicely by touring vocalists Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, with backing from drummer/vocalist Cindy Blackman Santana. Carlos rips off some melty leads to drive it home and announce that he's ready for action.

The band then dips into their own classics catalog for the ever-mystical “Black Magic Women”. Santana's bluesy signature riffs teleport the audience back to the late '60s, using music as time machine. The band dips further into that seminal era when the band segues into a jam on Jimi Hendrix' “Third Stone From the Sun”. It's no mere tease either, as Carlos delivers an extended solo in homage to Jimi over the trippy groove, augmented by the ace percussion of Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow. The “Third Stone” jam then segues beautifully into “Oye Como Va”, a masterful display of how to keep a set flowing. This gets most of the folks in the balcony up out of their seats, as the women find it impossible not to dance to the Tito Puente classic that Santana has owned for decades. “Maria Maria” then hits from 1999's Supernatural album for what has become one of the grooviest cuts in the Santana repertoire, which keeps the dance party vibe going nicely.

Some people don't like to hear rock stars speak out on spiritual or social matters, and anyone who is really close-minded should probably avoid this tour. But they'd be better off listening to what Carlos has to say. He's long been one of the high priests for the spiritual power of music and he's not shy about offering some wisdom in the hope of conjuring a better world.

“Our deepest wish is to play music... to make us realize we are light and love,” says Carlos. “It's important to identify with a perception of beauty... Barack Obama cannot help you.” Carlos goes on to speak of how everyone “can make a difference on this planet” because everyone has “the capacity to make miracles.”

“Don't wait for religious or government people to do it for you, do it for yourself... to create peace in this lifetime,” concludes Carlos to a round of applause as the band moved into the gorgeous “Sambi Pa Ti”. His melodic guitar notes here sound like drops of pure spiritual light from the heavens, delivered to help light and love grow in each listener. It's only too bad that Carlos can't be head of the United Nations, for then Earth might have the leadership necessary to generate some world peace.

A moment of solidarity occurs when Carlos invites Michael Franti back out onstage for a joyous rendition of “Africa”. The energetic polyrhythmic jam soars higher when the band segues into a teaser jam on Michael Jackson's “Wanna Be Starting Something”. Another highlight occurs when bassist Benny Rietveld and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana are given the stage for a rhythm section jam. Rietveld throws down a funkalicious solo that recalls Phish bassist Mike Gordon slapping out the intro to “Weekapaugh Groove”, but if Gordo ever threw down an intro like this one the Phish crowd would go absolutely bonkers. The jam then segues into a tease on Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, as Rietveld covers another Gen-X touchstone, much to the delight of the audience.

The full band returns for the classic “Jingo”, which leads to one of the evening's most epic jams with Carlos throwing down some of his hottest licks. One of the Santana band's earliest showcases, the timeless psychedelic jam makes Carlos seem like a multi-dimensional warrior who transcends time and space. “Open Invitation” switches it up with one of the band's '80s hits, with full rock power activated and catalyzed further by a huge keyboard solo from David Mathews. The music turns a truly majestic corner when the band then moves into John Coltrane's “A Love Supreme”, which features extended jamming all around. It's like being in the electric sky church that Jimi Hendrix spoke of so fondly.

The show could end in satisfactory fashion right there, but no, the band surges on with a monster rendition of Cream's “Sunshine of Your Love", with Carlos paying homage to the band he was once busted by Bill Graham for sneaking into The Fillmore Auditorium to see. The 1999 smash hit “Smooth” is delivered as well, and then a truly epic encore of “Soul Sacrifice” caps off the show in maximum style. The video imagery features a white dove of peace flying into space, with Carlos noting, “The time is now, for us to coexist in peace and happiness.”

Many “classic rock” bands are on the road these days trying to milk their old hits for whatever they can. But very few artists are mixing up their classic hits with compelling newer material and fresh jams like Santana. With two drummers, two percussionists and a horn section, Carlos Santana is dedicated to delivering the music with as much multi-dimensional flavor as can be mustered. It's a joy to watch such a Jedi master still in action after all these years and not missing a beat. Can he help bring his vision of world peace into reality? There's no doubt that either he will or he'll die trying.

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