Santana's agave field / Photo by Luke O'Neil
They say that an addict is never going to be able to begin the journey to recovery until they've hit rock bottom. For me, that moment came in the bowels of a rodeo and musical stadium in Guadalajara last night. I'd snuck off from the group I'd been sitting with and lurked into an empty service corridor of the venue to get a hit of the international traveler's crack: an electrical socket and a passable phone signal. Carlos Santana, favorite son of Jalisco, was about to take the stage, and I could not have cared less. I needed this. I'd been wrestling with spotty wi-fi for days, and I didn't have much to talk about with the people I'd met, particularly because I speak Spanish like a brutish toddler. Disinterested security guards considered me like a circus curiosity, laying there on the cold concrete with my phone balanced precariously on an outlet. Spiders crawled all over my prone body, although I may have been imagining those. I felt the surge rush through my phone. I was getting my medicine.
But then, after a while, something strange happened. I managed to have fun like a normal, functioning human being. It was supremely fucked up.
None of which is to say I don't have the appropriate amount of musical respect for Carlos Santana, for whom this concert served as a sort of annual home-coming, not to mention Journey – fucking Journey!– who co-headlined the bill. But the thing is, after a certain number of thousand concerts in a man's life, you sort of get the idea, and a show at a 15,000-seating arena like this is defininitely not something I'd ever go to in my normal life, due to being a veteran cool guy who is better than everyone else; definitely not without the crutch of a Twitter feed to crack jokes to in order to let everyone know how above it all I am, anyway. But here I was, trapped, phone prospects grim, and no cash on hand—they didn't take credit cards here—to even drink my way to oblivion. Wait, maybe I have two addictions. At least you could smoke inside, god bless this beautiful country. Three addictions I guess.
Journey, though, as they say. I defy anyone, no matter how far your musical head is up your own ass, to try to maintain your cool when those unfrozen prog-cavemen are sweating through their dad jeans. The band, now fronted by the much younger Fillipino whirlwind and vocal powerhouse Arnel Pineda (who was famously asked to join the band after Neal Schon saw videos of him singing covers online) has an unfairly stacked catalogue of hits, more hits than you probably even remember, spread out over 14 albums since 1975. It only took about five seconds of “Anyway Way You Want It” for the first tremors of human emotion to ripple their way across my stone grill. What is this feeling? How do you humans call it? Joy? By the time they'd sprinted through “Open Arms”, “Faithfully”,” Who's Crying Now”, and “Wheel in the Sky,” I'd almost forgotten what I was so grumpy about in the first place. Almost. I think I finally understand what normcore is.
While most people know Journey for their Steve Perry years, the band has long had its roots in jizz-sock jazzy-prog noodlings, and they took advantage of the opportunity to make that very clear throughout. This is why it's crucial to never upset the delicate band hierarchy ecosystem—once you lose the important checks and balances provided by a frontman who's on equal footing with the guitarist, it can lead to all sorts of wankery: a half dozen guitar solos from Schon (who I kept thining I recognized as the gross-ass dad in some babysitter porn I'd watched recently), a lengthy—lengthy —piano solo from Jonathan Cain, the damn drummer gets to take lead on a song (although Deen Castronovo, whose kit looks like the Mars rover, was in fine, Perry-like voice). Musicianship is like fucking—it's all well and good to be able to do it for an hour, but most people are just interested in getting the point, which is finishing it and going back to tweeting.
Musicianship is, of course, the word that defines Santana. And after being bludgeoned in the face by Journey's blues-hammer for about 30 minutes longer than one might've hoped, the idea of a dozen plus musicians on stage—three drummers, horns, multiple singers—sent me retreating into the embrace of my phone, where the world is safe and good and you don't have to make conversations with people that last longer than 140 characters. I texted a friend to explain my predicament, and she told me I was acting pathetic. "Get back in there and enjoy yourself, what the fuck is wrong with you?" I felt like a child being told to go to my room, only it's a room where a legend of rock and roll was about to perform with his supremely talented band and run through a half century of indelible music. NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME.
But still, the hits came fast and furious. "Black Magic Woman" segued right into "Oye como va", and, well, you can probably imagine how excited a Mexican audience was to be at a Santana concert. It was infectious, even if a lot of the material did sound like it was threatening to transition right into the Law & Order theme song at any minute. Each band member got their own chance to solo, with drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana (I think), best known for her work with Lenny Kravitz, getting a particularly rapturous, and well-deserved ovation for hers, which lasted longer than a lot of entire punk sets I've seen. Heartbreakingly, Rob Thomas did not materialize out of the ether to perform “Smooth.” I will never get over that.
Schon, who actually began Journey with former keyboardist Gregg Rolie after they'd played in Santana together back in the early Seventies, joined the band on stage, trading solos back and forth with Carlos. They were like two old ,veteran athletes, effortleslly tossing the ball back and forth with no signs of aging—aside from, you know, all the literal signs of aging.
Through it all Santana was cool and humble. I'd had a chance to meet him before the show, in theory to talk about the tequila brand Casa Noble that he's got a part stake in, and whose distillery I'd visited earlier that day in the town of Tequila, not far from here he grew up. "You must hate this," I said to him, as he smiled gamely for a photo with a group of guests being herded through the staging area out back. “I actually don't mind it at all," he said. He was completely tranquillo. I could learn a lesson from that. In fact, I think I'l spend the rest of the day not staring at my phone the entire time in his honor, and maybe just enjoy the moment—just as soon as I check in to see what the reactions to this piece are.
Luke O'Neil is keeping it tranquillo on Twitter - @lukeoneil47