The way he walks, the way he talks, the way he plays guitar. You can tell that Carlos Santana is one spiritual dude.
On Thursday night, he strolled with casual grace onto the stage at Mystic Lake Casino’s amphitheater as a vision in white — white fedora, white loafers, white leather pants and white hoodie with a gold “Santana” emblazoned on it.
From time to time, he launched into one of his hippie-meets-humanist monologues. “We are one of the few bands that celebrates and validates what’s inside,” he said early in the evening.
For most of the 2½ hours at Mystic, Santana, who turns 70 next week, let his guitar do the talking. He played with fluidity and finesse, sustaining notes or gracefully pushing the melody to a gorgeous climax.
He’s not about flash, though he can play it fast and furious. He’s about the eloquent and the ethereal. With those six strings, the man with the peaceful presence wants to elevate the spirit as he’s done since Woodstock launched him into stardom in 1969.
While Thursday’s performance certainly had its Woodstockian flashbacks, the vibe early on reflected a festive Latin feel. “O Paradiso” got the party started, but “Maria Maria,” a hit from Santana’s massive 1999 comeback album “Supernatural,” whipped the 6,366 into a frenzy, starting with Santana’s opening acoustic flamenco fireworks.
“Foo Foo” kept the party going, fueled by singer Ray Greene’s staccato trumpet. Having signed on last year, he’s a valuable addition on vocals, which have never been a priority for Santana. Andy Vargas, the vocalist since 2000, is serviceable. Greene is sufficiently soulful, but his vocals were never loud enough in the mix to make a difference.
Let’s face it, people go to see Carlos Santana play guitar. They were rewarded with the beautifully expressive instrumental “Europa” and that high held note on “Jingo-Lo-Ba” before it gave way to a Latin rhythmic guitar jam.
Not even Santana’s guitar could save bland vocal treatments of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Enya’s pop fluff “Orinoco Flow.”
The set had an odd flow, getting bogged down on those aforementioned vocal forays and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana’s “I Remember,” which could have sounded like Sade goes to Brazil if the hushed vocals had been louder. Moreover, Blackman’s drum solo on another number went on too long, though there’s no question that she adds a welcome heavier bottom to this percussive ensemble.
Carlos’ spirit reached a new level on a somewhat tentative song about life and death. He seemed very impassioned as he led the band through it. Thereafter his already stellar guitar playing found a higher plane on “Mona Lisa” and the instrumental of “Summertime,” during which his fast fingers maneuvered on the fretboard like an X Games athlete doing a difficult trick.
The crowd rallied behind the oldies “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va” and went wild for “Smooth,” the 1999 signature for Santana’s second act. But he seemed more invested in the finale, an inspired heavy rock-funk sendup of the Chambers Brothers’ “Love Peace and Happiness,” which potently summed up Santana’s spiritual message.