Whatever criteria you use, it’s hard not to include Carlos Santana and Derek Trucks on the list of greatest rock guitarists today and ever.
Both were on stage together Friday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center as part of a double bill of pre-Woodstock bands Allman Brothers and Santana.
Trucks comes from the Duane Allman lineage and continues to pave new paths (like an eastern influence), while Santana seems to have invented his own universe, though he’s often linked back to early Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Friday night also featured Warren Haynes, another epic shredder straight from the book of Southern rock who co-fronts the Allmans with Trucks. The three guitarists got together during the Santana set for Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” A little too much guitar on one stage, but definitely worth celebrating.
The Allman Brothers opened the Friday night show. Enjoying some of the best years of their career recently since founder Duane Allman died in 1971, they played mostly tunes from their 1971 days, like “Stateboro Blues,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Hot Lanta,” “One Way Out,” “Whipping Post,” “Revival,” “Dreams,” and “Midnight Rider.”
They closed the set with a more recent “No One to Run With” (1994) and filled the screen with images of Duane Allman, sometimes superimposed over Trucks while playing his solo. A little weird for sure, but Trucks, nephew of original Allman drummer Butch Trucks, is known for carrying Duane Allman’s torch. Other photos included their legendary road crew, and a few shots of Dickey Betts, the original guitarist now estranged from the group.
Gregg Allman sounded stronger than expected on vocals, given recent health problems and a long life of drinking and drugs, as he describes in a recent autobiography. Haynes paid tribute to Bill Graham, a promoter who managed the famed Fillmore East and is credited with helping both the Allmans and Santana in their early days.
Many tunes the Allmans rammed right through, but just as many Trucks and Haynes tore open with searing solos for a crowd that would not tolerate any less. Haynes lit up “Dreams” while Trucks did the same on “Sky Is Crying,” both using slide guitar.
While the Allmans are about the blues, Santana is a far different animal, merging Afro-Cuban rhythms with rock guitar. Friday night Santana, accompanied by his usual wall of percussion, Spanish-singing vocalists and occasional horns, kept the amphitheater on its feet the entire show with high-energy dance tunes and his classics like “Ain’t Got Nobody (That I Can Depend On),” and the powerful, percussion-driven “Jingo.”
While a lot is happening on Santana’s stage at every moment, it’s hard not to watch him and he knows it. He played beautiful instrumental ballads, held long signature notes, pointed and directed, danced, waved and picked impeccable and thrilling solos.
His guitar tone is unmistakable: You hear one note on the radio and you know it’s him. He plays with the same clarity and ferocity as he did 40-plus years ago, and this set felt far fresher than the Allmans set — which was a wonderful walk through the past, while Santana felt contemporary and still leaning forward. The two bands make a great combo for a double-bill, both legendary classic rockers whose music continues to thrive today on the radio and in the DNA of upcoming acts.