Opinion: Saturday In the Park; Sioux City, Iowa; July 3, 2010.

As promised earlier, a sort-of review of our trip to Sioux City last Saturday to see Steve Winwood and Carlos Santana. This post has nothing whatsoever to do with violins, if it matters.  However, it might tie in later, say in part 3.

Have you ever gotten Goosebumps?  The kind that are the size of manhole covers and stay with you for several minutes, refreshing with every new song?  Sioux City’s 20th anniversary Saturday in the Park festival provided countless moments like that.

Grandview Park was the venue for this free admission festival, with its magnificent old trees and rare views of stars at night (literally — there wasn’t any lighting except for the stage lights and vendors.)  The bandshell, a fixture of many midwestern towns, was larger than most and accommodated everyone’s equipment and personnel with ease.

Steve Winwood opened for Carlos Santana as the headline mainstage acts.  There was another, smaller stage that catered to alternative, punk and rap fans. I’m guessing it was mostly local bands, but there wasn’t any coverage in the paper, so if you know more about this part, feel free to leave a comment.  And the other mainstage bands were varied and excellent.  I rarely buy music anymore — it has to be really spectacular for me to even consider it — but I’d buy much of their stuff.  If you don’t want to read this whole post, I can sum it up the entire day in a word: Awesome!  Or in Santana’s word: Perfect!

We  — The Dad, Eric and I — arrived about three hours later than we had planned (normal for us) and as a result, got worse seats than we had planned.  We couldn’t see the left side of the stage, but we also weren’t up to traipsing through people’s blankets and stuff to finding a closer or better vantage point. So.

I really, really wanted to hear the opening band, Indigenous,  a blues-based Nakota band from Yankton, but we were too late.  Drat.  Indigenous has some excellent music available and I am going to make a point of seeing them live, soon.

When we got there, Eric was starving.  So he and The Dad went off to find sustenance (and something for me to drink) while I caught the end of the day’s second band, Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys.  The band hails from New Orleans.  Miss Amanda is a fiddler/vocalist/jumper-around-on-stager.  The band was OK.  I mean, she’s not Alison Krauss or Mark Wood.  Or Charlie Daniels.  The cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia was a bit mild.  Overall, a good band but not my favorite of the day.

The third group, Los Angeles-based Fitz and the Tantrums was spectacular.  I don’t know why they aren’t a top 40 group.  Because there isn’t a guitar (?!)  in the group? Any producers out there want to venture a guess?  They were a little overdressed for the weather — dark suits and ties, a la The Blues Brothers; the drummer eventually shed his jacket — but their cover of Sweet Dreams was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Come to think of it, the suits and ties were rather Lennox-y.  Lennox-esque?  Yeah.  And The Tantrums are putting out suitably impressive stuff of their own.  I’m looking for them to make it big really soon.  Take a listen.

Next up was Michael Franti and Spearhead. They got plenty of space in the paper so I won’t give much here,  except to say that Franti jumped up on an instrument crate about twenty feet in front of me to sing, and I got video (!) before the sea of Fran-atics closed around so that no one else could see.  Except that my phone refuses to tell me where it is.  I’m sure I’ll find it eventually.  (The Dad was suitably impressed when I told him later.)  Spearhead’s cover of Billie Jean was a little out of place and wasn’t as good as the reviewer would have you believe.  I was there.  Heh.  Mr. Franti can moonwalk pretty well though, and kick a soccer ball.  And play guitar. And dance. He definitely won the Red Bull trophy for “Most Energetic Performer”.  I wonder though — Spearhead seemed like an odd choice as a warm up for Winwood.  It was good, but I personally preferred The Tantrums.

It took a little longer to change the set for Steve Winwood than for the groups prior, but it was worth it.  Mr. Winwood turned 63 in May, but he sounds like he’s still in the Spencer Davis Group.  Here’s the same song thirty years later. It didn’t sound any different, except for a much smaller band.  My gosh, what a voice!  Here’s another example.   If anything, Winwood’s voice has matured, but in a good way. It sounds richer, fuller and more in control than it did forty years ago.  It was surreal, sorta like sitting there listening to all my CDs, on The Dad’s exquisite ESS Tempest speakers.  Except it was LIVE!  Winwood’s set was a little short, which was a real shame.  So many great songs, such an incredibly versatile and virtuosic musician, so little time.  It was threatening to storm (there was thunder) and I think they ended early because of that.  People started leaving in droves.  Their loss.  The sky rumbled, the clouds raced through, it sprinkled about 15 drops and then…

Santana took the stage.

I have always thought that, as a guitarist, Mr. Santana should have shared the “God” billing with Eric Clapton.  The man can shred.

Santana’s band is about as close to perfection as you can get: three drummers, plus two lead vocalists contributing maracas and tambourines. Add a trumpet, trombone, keyboardist and Santana and you have a band that literally sounds ageless, timeless and limitless.  And two of the drummers alternately sat in with Spearhead and (I think) Amanda Shaw, who in turn assisted on one of Spearhead’s songs.  I wonder if it’s as cool for young, up-and-comers to work with established artists like Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo, as it is for young violinists to work with, say, Itzhak Perlman or Midori?

I read an interview a long time ago where Santana likened playing music to lovemaking. (Just thought I’d throw that out to see if you were paying attention.)  (This isn’t the exact article but he says sort of the same thing.  Also, Santana’s description of how to spin out a melodic line is priceless. And funny.)  And that is part of what makes him — and other lyrically oriented guitarists — so satisfying to hear.  And watch.  Because if you’re like me, seeing how he does it and trying to figure out the mechanics, are just as important as hearing what he’s doing.

Again, the price of admission ended up being price-less after hearing Santana’s cover of Cream’s White Room.  Clapton hasn’t played it like that in years. (Said while kneeling reverently toward Crossroads.)  The last time I saw him really shred White Room was in 2005 at Royal Albert Hall (I’ve seen it live two times since then, as well).   The video is here.  We  — The Dad and I, and captive-listener Eric — were sitting directly stage right of the band in the first balcony, but unfortunately just out of camera range.

Watching Santana is a sight to behold.  If you didn’t click the link earlier, do it now.  Or nowThis one is good too.  (Sorry — it’s hard to pick a favorite!)  He makes it look easy, as is typical with truly great musicians.  When you watch guitar gods, it looks like they aren’t working at all, and it seems to be a pretty common trait to all of them:  Santana, Clapton, SRV, Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, etc.  Economy of motion allows them to have complete control over what they are doing, and over what their guitars are doing.  It’s hard to do that when you’re jumping around like a maniac on the stage.  It’s also really hard to describe the mastery involved and what it looks like.  Suffice it to say that Santana’s technique looks like a combination of pure concentration and pure joy.  With a dose of axe-wielding and shredding when required and appropriate.  Because, you know how SOME concertgoers don’t think they’ve been to a concert if they haven’t seen the required theatrics on stage.  It’s amazing to me how many rock guitarists, the REALLY good ones, are ultra-conservative and reserved.

And then there were fireworks.  Oooh! Aaah!

Then we walked two miles back to the car, instead of waiting for two hours for the shuttle bus to take us back to the car.  And Eric has formally been initiated for surviving his first rock concert (if you don’t count Cream, ZZ Top, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Anthony Gomes while he was percolating).

But “free” always ALWAYS infers the opposite, and this festival sticks with tradition, giving “free” an entirely new meaning. That’s another post.

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