Halfway through his show Saturday night in Bethel, New York, Carlos Santana paused to reminisce in front of 15,000 fans. “Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone,” he said. “All of us who were here remember the magic. Only love can conquer hate. This is Woodstock. This is the place where miracles can happen.”
This weekend’s show marked the first time the guitarist had returned to the festival’s grounds since his band was its breakout act 41 years ago. The Bay Area group hadn’t even released an album when they played the festival — manager Bill Graham had talked organizer Michael Lang into including them for an hour-long slot on Saturday night of the festival. The day of the show, the 22-year-old guitarist took a massive dose of mescaline early in the day, and was then asked to play earlier than expected. “I just prayed that the Lord would keep me in tune and in time,” he later said.
The band’s legendary 1969 set culminated with a searing “Soul Sacrifice,” featuring a three-and-a-half minute drum solo from 19-year-old Michael Shrieve. The gig introduced thousands to the band’s Afro-Cuban rhythms and biting Latin blues. They were soon featured in the Woodstock film and soundtrack. Their self-titled debut album was released on Columbia, and in September 1969 debuted at Number Four in the U.S. Graham said later, “Woodstock made Santana.”
Now, Woodstock is home to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which includes an interactive Woodstock museum. Before his set, Santana surprised fans by touring the entire complex. He visited monument where the festival stage once stood, and a crowd mobbed him in the gift shop before he made his way into the museum, which has a replica of the hippie bus and 16 different films about the festival. Santana was impressed by a large mural of himself onstage in a brown vest. For a few minutes, he also watched his band’s legendary performance in a massive screening room.
Opener Steve Winwood played a stripped-down set that featured mostly hits from his 45-year career. He never made it to Woodstock, he told the crowd, because Traffic had briefly broken up. He played epic guitar on soulful blues rocker “Dirty City,” and busted out the Spencer Davis Group classic “Gimme Some Lovin,” which he recorded with the when he was still a teenager. He rounded out his set psychedelic blues classics such as “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Santana took the stage in a Woodstock T-shirt and his trademark hat alongside a massive 11-piece band featuring three percussionists. As footage of his Woodstock performance ran behind him, he tore through early highlight “Soul Sacrifice,” hunched over his guitar and wincing while masterfully plucking screeching, often dissonant notes. While Santana played Spanish licks on “Maria Maria,” the group’s two vocalists, Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, hyped up the crowd while singing in unison.
Early classic “Jingo” built wah-wah guitar and amped-up horns over eight minutes while Santana glided into slick guitar ecstasy. The sly groove of “Oye Como Va” was followed by an epic “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen.” Santana also played his new cover of Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” which appears on his new disc Guitar Heaven, out September 21st.
Santana revived the Sixties spirit with a take on the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” adding bluesy flourishes and a dash of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” as Lindsay sang alone, perfectly replicating Jim Morrison’s haunting vocals. The band also played a hard-rocking take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” backed by trippy visuals.
Wrapped up in the Woodstock mindset, Santana soaked in the significance of the night’s venue. He told the crowd they are made of “light and love, light and love” and took a moment to remember the event that had brought him to the same spot 41 years earlier: “This is ground zero of peace and love.”