Strum Like Santana

Carlos Santana has been a musical force to be reckoned with since before his days at Woodstock. His signature guitar riffs are a thing of beauty. He pioneered the fusion of rock, Latin jazz and African rhythms using percussion instruments like timbales and congas, which was unheard of in the genre during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
He mixed melodic blues-based guitar lines and salsa elements with these unique instruments to create a sound he still experiments with today. Santana experienced a resurgence in popularity and critical acclaim in the late ’90s. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed him at No. 20 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
During his career he has won 10 Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards.
It’s no wonder the tribute world is riddled with guys who yearn to play like him, to be him. Some do well with the role, and some don’t. Some might strive to play like him, but they don’t resemble him at all, or they might look like him but they can’t set the music on fire like Santana. However, there’s one guy who nails the role and captures both looks and guitar-shredding ability, Benito Meschoulam. He put together a tribute show in 2012 entitled SantanaWays, playing all around the San Diego area. He now brings the show to the Riverside Resort for the first time.
“I played in many bands during all my life and usually I play classic rock. I’ve done some original projects in the past, like in the ’70s,” Meschoulam told the Laughlin entertainer. “Then for economical reasons, I quit music pretty much for like 36 years. I became a restaurant manager and I work in restaurants, but I continued playing, sitting in here and there.
“One day I got the feeling that I needed to play more, especially when I was working 15 hours a day, six days a week in a restaurant. I know it’s crazy. So I formed a trio so I could play once a week in that same restaurant where I worked.
“Then we started doing all classic rock, you name it, Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Beatles and all that, and we did a lot of Santana,” he added. “A lot of people came to me saying, ‘you look like Carlos Santana, you sound like Carlos, you move like Carlos and you play like Carlos, why don’t you do a Carlos Santana band?’
“For a long time, I was thinking if I were to do it, would I like it or not. My partner Ray Nichols, who is the lead singer in the band and keyboardist, said before, ‘we should do that one day.’ So one day I thought, ‘let’s give it a try, I’m gonna put together a Santana tribute band.’ I called Ray and he responded, ‘finally you’re talking my language.’ I said, ‘Well, ok, let’s see what happens and give it a try.'”
The guys added a bass player, percussionist to play timbales, a drummer, and congas and they set the wheels in motion.
“We got invited to perform at a fundraiser for a children’s hospital and we didn’t have much material yet, but we just needed to play for 20 or 30 minutes. So we did and it became a success. Everybody loved the music and the idea. We played for maybe 200 people and we packed the venue.
“We started gigging in small clubs here and we played others around the area. But after two years, the band’s been successful,” he said. “We’ve been growing. Now we’ve gotten out of the small clubs and we play concerts in the park, we play casinos, concert venues, and we play one free show every year in Balboa Park. Last year we drew 6,000 people, the largest crowd they ever had in all the summer concerts.”
One of Meschoulam’s biggest challenges is finding timbales players.
“We play with many different timbales players. We never have one set guy,” he said. “Timbales players are very difficult to find. There’s a lot of conga players, but timbales is one instrument not everybody can play right. So we’ve had the best players in San Diego playing with us when they are available. The one I’m taking to Laughlin, Charlie Chavez is a superb, incredible player and percussion teacher.”
Meschoulam’s approach with his tribute is to do it the way Santana himself started out.
“We focus on the old Santana material pretty much, which was the essence and the roots of the real Carlos Santana before he became more commercial and more pop — which is not bad, he’s good — and lately he’s been really good. We have a few of the current songs we play, but mainly the old ones, the classics like ‘Black Magic Woman,’ ‘Oye Como Va,’ — the ones from Woodstock, because we’re all from that generation pretty much.
“I heard of Santana back in 1969 I guess it was,” he said. “I was living in Mexico City, and I fell in love with the music. What a great idea to mix salsa with rock and roll and blues and jazz altogether. And yeah, Carlos became really successful with that idea.
“Carlos himself got a lot of spiritual visions and all that, which we as a band, we follow, but we don’t do that. We focus on the music,” he added. “I don’t want to focus on the person and do his personal things. That’s what he does — he likes to get political and spiritual sometimes. He’s got a great message, but we really focus on the music, and we do the best we can to replicate the music as much as possible. Also we try to do more of the live versions as opposed to the standard studio versions we hear on the radio every day. We like to get more excitement when we play the songs just like when Carlos is playing live.
“We need to focus on what the Santana band is like,” he explained. “I don’t want people trying to steal the show doing their own thing, not even myself and I’m the guitar player. I try to be simple on stage.
“I’ve seen other Santana cover bands and the guitarist is wild and jumping in the crowd and moving around, something Carlos never does. Another band that does a lot of Santana has a guy playing with his feet like Jimi Hendrix. That’s another thing Carlos would never do.”
He credits the success of the band to his members.
“I don’t know if I’ve been lucky but the team I have are really cool people, they’re all humble people that you can count on, no egos, and my lead singer who is the keyboardist sings really good and plays excellent keyboards. My bass player moves a little bit more than he should, but he’s doing really well, and the percussionists are incredible players,” he said.
“There are so many Santana bands but what makes us different is I naturally look like Carlos,” he said. “I don’t have to wear wigs, I don’t have to glue on moustaches, it’s just natural. People have told me for years, since the ’70s, ‘wow, you really look like Carlos.’ What it takes for a tribute is the look-alike. It doesn’t matter what band you do, you have to look like it besides playing like it. The stage needs to look like it — so all those things matter. We have the right Carlos in the band, which is me.”
He said the show he’s bringing to the Riverside will cover a lot of musical ground.
“They always want to hear ‘Maria Maria,’ ‘Black Magic Woman,’ ‘Oye Como Va,’ — you know the Latin people want to hear ‘Corazon Espinado’ and the American people like to hear ‘Smooth.’ The show I’m going to put together is a show that mixes nice Latin beats and classics, and some of the songs that have so many changes in tempos and drum solos here, and guitar solos there, that it’s more like a concert.
“It’s 75 percent classics and the other 25 percent is the more current stuff. The studio versions are nice, but the live versions are much nicer and that’s what we’re doing.”


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Aug. 8-12 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets