Ol' Black Magic

Although the mystical guitarist may be correct in believing otherwise, the phenomenal success of the diamond-selling, Grammy-sweeping Supernatural has a very natural explanation. In the face of volatile industry pressures, former Arista label-head Clive Davis made some brilliantly simple choices in this collaboration. He wed the growing public appetite for Latin music to the baby-boomer selling power of a classic-rock artist and an array of contemporary artists with varied audiences -- platinum artists ranging from the Fugees' Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill to Dave Matthews. Davis even had the savvy to bolster the album's street-level credibility with an appearance by Southern rap's most distinctive voice, Cee-Lo of the Goodie Mob.

A genre-merging artist throughout his three-decade-long career, Carlos Santana was an obvious choice for a musician versatile enough to pull off such a synthesis. At the same time, he has never before shown close to the commercial potential of this album. The Bay Area guitarist's early albums are aggressively hard rocking, with a tendency toward long, extended jams. Later his music grew lighter and, at times, considerably duller. Supernatural strikes an accessible midpoint between such extremes, as does the new stage show.

Like the album, Santana's current tour sure-footedly blends audiences. With long-time keyboardist Chester Thompson injecting some Southern soul ballast and crack vocalists Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay leaping from classic rock vocals to sounds straight out of contemporary R&B and Latin pop, Santana's show feels like what it is: 30 years of popular music made into one.

Of course central to this fusion is the ongoing commentary by Santana's singularly mysterious yet joyful voice on guitar. And therein lies the true magic of Santana. An artist who views himself as a student of mentors as diverse as Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Jeff Beck, and B.B. King, Carlos Santana consistently has described his work in frustratingly vague yet spiritually earnest terms. Before the release of Supernatural, he told the story of how his collaboration with Clive Davis came into being: “Mr. Clive Davis came really close to my face, eyeball to eyeball, and said, “What does Carlos Santana want to do?' and I said, ““I want to connect molecules to light.'” As a student of guru Sri Chinmoy (along with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane) in the early Seventies, Santana always sought such metaphysical ends in his music, and it's still evident in his playing. It may also be the reason a project like Supernatural has worked so well.

At a time when contemporary music is marketed in razor-thin divisions, Davis's marketing ploy may be viewed with cynicism. But the music he's made with Santana works, and its unifying power is moving. The live show sticks close to the album for the first hour, pleasing the majority of the newfound audience before plunging into a series of Santana's old faithfuls (including his cover of Fleetwood Mac's “Black Magic Woman” and, of course, Tito Puente's “Oye Como Va”) that bring the full house, old and young, out of their seats and into that transcendental space Santana always seeks to create.

Earlier legs of the tour have also featured opening acts that blended genres, such as Dave Matthews, Ozomatli, and Mana. The current road show will be uniquely adventurous in its own right, opening with Macy Gray's distinctive R&B. Gray, who emerged from L.A. with a remarkable debut last year, is yet another artist whose strength stems largely from how difficult it is to pigeonhole her. Her somewhat raspy yet thick, funky vocals bring to mind everyone from Billie Holiday to Sly Stone to Tina Turner, and her material, largely rooted in Southern soul, freely incorporates elements of jazz and hip-hop. A subtler fusion than Santana's Supernatural, Macy Gray's debut, On How Life Is just as surely fits no one genre and, at the same time, has managed to sell multiplatinum and take the single “I Try” to the top of the Billboard pop charts.

In the end perhaps there is something supernatural about a tour such as this. No matter how much industry executives try to anticipate, ride, and manipulate the public's tastes, music as strong as Santana and Macy Gray have to present on this tour comes from someplace no marketing wizard could ever quite dream up. Forty-six years ago Sam Phillips knew he would really have something if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man, but he didn't know what that meant until Elvis Presley goofed around one day in the studio. Music plays by its own rules, and, in a society as isolated and alienated as ours, when a diverse group of artists can bring us something that genuinely pulls us together, a little faith explains a lot more than the mechanics of profit.