Santana and The Allman Brothers Band are on a (too-brief) string of co-headlining dates, which is a double bill made in jam-band heaven. Along with The Grateful Dead, they are (arguably) the bands most responsible for today’s thriving improvisational rock scene, which has yielded Phish, The Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident and Galactic, among others.
The most surprising thing about the tour is that it hadn’t happened before now. There was clearly a respect and a bond between the two bands. It’s truly a co-headlining affair: The Allmans played first, whereas the prior night at Long’s Island’s Nikon At Jones Beach, they closed the show.
The Allmans feature one half of the original lineup (keyboardist/singer Gregg Allman and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks are founders), but it often seems as the younger members drive the band. That was the case last night, as Gregg didn’t sound as strong vocally as usual, but The Allmans are a high performance vehicle that can easily withstand a tire with a slow leak. And as important as their namesake’s vocals are to the group, the interplay between guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes and bassist Oteil Burbridge is what sends the band into overdrive: those three never seem to have a bad show, and last night was no exception. The group isn’t overly attached to their radio hits (they never play “Ramblin’ Man” and last night didn’t play “Melissa”), but they do have “standards” that they often perform. Last night, those included “Statesboro Blues,” “One Way Out” and one of their hugest hits, “Midnight Rider.” Haynes took the mic for “Soulshine” (a duet with Allman) and “Rockin’ Horse” — two songs that he also does with his other band Gov’t Mule — and the show probably would have benefitted from more of Haynes’ singing.
But the “star” of the Allmans’ set was the fluid instrumental improvisation, and their bond seems to border on telepathy: on songs like “Dreams,” “Whipping Post” and the instrumental “Jessica” (which features a riff so distinct you can actually sing along to it) the band pushed themselves in ways that most arena headliners wouldn’t attempt to. Gregg Allman has often expressed wonder at how their peers play the same songs, the same way, night after night for decades. Seeing them live, it’s understandable why he would question it: when the Allmans play a song that they’ve played countless times, it still sounds fresh and even surprising.
And that’s something that Santana has in common with the Allmans. While he isn’t tethered to his hits, certain songs will usually make the setlist, but he (and his band) always improvise during the instrumental sections, making standards sound both familiar and exciting.
Santana showed a film montage of previous versions of the band during their performance of their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman,” a reminder of how much the group has changed over the decades. Their namesake Carlos Santana, of course, remains, but he is the only original member still with the group. His ten piece band play his songs as if they are contributors, not a “backing band.” Singers Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay take on songs originally sung by original singer Gregg Rolie and more recent guests including Rob Thomas and (as they say on the televised talent shows) they “make the songs their own.”
The set list included some classics by the early version of the band (“Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” “No One To Depend On,” “Jingo” and “No One To Depend On”) as well as his more recent era (“Smooth,” “Maria Maria” and “Corazon Espinado” from 1999’s Supernatural, “Foo Foo” from 2002’s Shaman).
“Is this heaven or what?” the legendary guitarist asked from the stage, in one of the many times he addressed the audience. “We are so grateful to be on the stage with The Allman Brothers Band. It is our highest wish to touch your heart and remind you that you are significant!” A few songs later, they were joined by two members of the group, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, for a rendition of a little known John Lee Hooker song, “Boogie Women” that blew the roof off (Allmans percussionist Marc Quinones joined during the song). Santana said that Haynes and Trucks are carrying the torch for modern blues — heavy praise, coming from a guy who has played with Hooker, Buddy Guy and B.B. King. The onstage collaboration seemed to go by too quickly, and hopefully they will jam together more if they do a more lengthy tour in the future.
– Brian Ives, CBS Local / photos Maria Ives