Monday, Sept. 30, 2002 | 8:42 a.m.
For the first 40 minutes of Sunday night's Santana concert at Rain in the Desert at the Palms, you would have been hard-pressed to identify guitar great Carlos Santana as the show's featured attraction.
Tucked away inconspicuously near the left side of the stage, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, the 55-year-old Latino legend also struggled to be heard over the thunder created by 10 other musicians.
Out of the spotlight and far too low in the mix for his sweet solos to be appreciated, Santana spent the early part of the night being overshadowed by vocalist Andy Vargas, who danced around the stage doing his best Ricky Martin impersonation, waving his hands above his head and gyrating his hips.
But just when longtime fans might have been ready to write off Santana's latest Las Vegas appearance as too "Smooth" for their tastes, the guitarist and his band locked into a frenetic rhythmic groove and rarely wavered.
Most importantly, the group's leader stepped out of the shadows -- both literally and figuratively -- ditching his shades, moving to the front and boosting his instrument's volume so his trademark licks finally cried out as they have for more than 35 years.
As Santana gained energy, so too did his bandmates, most notably drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow, who shook the 1,500-person venue so hard a bank of speakers began swaying overhead.
Bassist Benny Rietveld also contributed to the group's deafening sound, while trumpeter Bill Ortiz and keyboardist Chester Thompson helped season the proceedings with a funky flavor.
Since forming his band in 1966, however, Santana's Achilles' heel has always been its inability to find and keep quality vocalists. And while Vargas and fellow singer Tony Lindsay certainly provided energy to the current lineup, constantly imploring the audience to clap its hands, jump in unison and sing along in call-and-response fashion, it is still uncertain whether the duo will ever draw favorable comparisons to the Greg Rolie-fronted version from the late 1960s and early '70s.
The opening night of a West Coast tour in support of the band's latest release, "Shaman," which is due in stores in October, Sunday's concert was heavy on material from both that album and 1999's smash hit "Supernatural."
"The Game of Love," the first single from the new CD, and "Adouma," stood out from among a handful of cuts from "Shaman." And, of course, "Smooth," the Grammy Award-winning single from "Supernatural," sent the crowd into a frenzy to close the main set, with Vargas and Lindsay singing in place of Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas.
Though the 2 1/2-hour performance was short on Santana classics -- "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va" were inexplicably omitted from the setlist, for example -- the show's centerpiece still proved to be one an old favorite, "Incident at Neshabur," from 1970's "Abraxas," the album many still consider the band's greatest work.
During the long instrumental piece, Santana displayed the signature guitar riffs that have spawned countless imitators and once led Frank Zappa to pen a song titled "Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression." With his eyes shut and his head shaking, Santana worked his fingers up and down his red guitar, routinely changing tempos and dynamics to give "Incident" a resounding, soulful quality.
Santana addressed the audience on several occasions, taking special note of the theater's intimate setting. "It's a very spiritual adventure being this close to you," he said.
As it has throughout his life, spirituality played a part in most of his comments during the show. Garbed in a shirt depicting several figures with halos atop their heads, Santana noted, "We're surrounded by angels tonight," early on, then added, "We are the architects of the new future," near the end of the concert.
For the encore, Santana returned to his roots, performing a blues medley including "Stormy Monday," during which the guitarist turned a Mississippi Delta standard into a Latin-tinged, psychedelic journey.
Then ironically, on a night featuring so much recent material, the band closed with a smoking rendition of "Jingo," a cut off 1969's self-titled debut. Complete with band intros and another set of screaming Santana solos, the finale demonstrated that the group's current incarnation may actually possess more range than the more critically regarded Santana band that rocked Woodstock so many years ago.