Santana at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino


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From the start of his Thursday set at the Joint in Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Carlos Santana made clear what historical moment he hoped to invoke, if not revive.

As the 11-piece group got the polyrhythms of Santana's early hit “Soul Sacrifice" simmering, images flashed across the large screen behind the musicians of an earlier, more famous rendition of the song.

It was from Woodstock, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Providing a thrilling end to an excellent set at the definitive rock festival, that version of “Soul Sacrifice" helped make the guitarist one of the great stars of the hippie era. “Soul Sacrifice" sounded different Thursday night than it did at Woodstock: It was softer-edged, less aggressive and deliberately wild. Santana, now a mellow presence at 61, has come a long way since his reputation-making early days: He's expanded his Latin-rock fusion sound to more explicitly encompass jazz, African and reggae music, as well as hip-hop-era pop.

His fans have changed too. While many at the Joint literally could have been at Woodstock, the mood they projected had little in common with the muddy free-love-for-all of 1969. The cheer that went up when Santana expressed the hope that President Obama might legalize marijuana and give the resulting tax gains to schoolteachers was audible, but well contained.

This crowd sipped cocktails while sitting in neat rows, dressed in vacation finery: dresses and silicone-smooth hair for the ladies, sport shirts and carefully distressed jeans on the men. Though some women showed decolletage, no one was even remotely naked. Few emulated Santana's nouveau psychedelic look or relaxed demeanor.

The fact that Santana's show worked in this setting proves what an unusual rock icon he is. Though it's been promoted as the first rock residency to hit Las Vegas (apparently Prince, who took a similar extended gig at the Rio in 2006, doesn't count as a rocker), “Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits" was just as much a dance party and a jazz performance as a conventional rock show.

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