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Santa Fe’s horns beat Garth Brooks to Allegiant Stadium stage

Updated March 1, 2021 - 10:06 am

Tony Davich’s voice carried over the great distance, filling all of Allegiant Stadium.

“I’ve got two tickets, to paradise!” the Santa Fe &The Fat City Horns singer called out. “Won’t you back your bags, we’ll leave tonight!”

It was paradise, but no tickets Sunday at the Las Vegas Raiders’ home facility. Nonetheless, Santa Fe performed the first show ever at Allegiant Stadium, months before Garth Brooks’ formal, sold-out lid-lifter on July 10. The band called out after the show, “We are the first!”

Forget that there were more players onstage and in the band’s support team than watching from the stands. One of those spectators was the lord of this manor, Raiders owner Mark Davis, keeping a keen eye and ear on the performance.

“I’m very impressed,” said Davis, who watched and listened from several vantage points in the stadium, including the end zone opposite the band’s stage under the stadium’s peristyle and the Al Davis Memorial Torch. “When I was listening, I almost had tears in my eyes. Everything is looking great, it’s working great, but you never know until you actually have a band playing.”

Davis became aware of Santa Fe and its sterling reputation during one of his visits to Bootlegger Bistro, which is a few cartwheels from the Copa Room, Santa Fe’s home venue for its Monday night shows. But the team owner and Vegas scenester had not seen the band live until Sunday.

Suffice to say the owner’s interest in the Vegas institution runs a bit deeper than a one-off showcase. The Raiders are looking for a house band to play the eight home games (not including preseason or playoffs) for the upcoming season. Raiders fans of a bygone era remember Del Courtney’s band playing at Frank Youell Field beginning in 1963, and later the Oakland Coliseum.

“We are looking at options for something like that — a house band to play before and after the game and during commercial breaks,” Davis said. “Something like what Paul Shaffer’s band was with David Letterman.”

Of the performance, Davis couched his enthusiasm, saying, “I’m very impressed, it’s still a process to figure it out.”

Davis beamed through the showcase, as Santa Fe tore through many of their fan favorites over the years, including its Earth, Wind & Fire medley and “Rosanna” by Toto. Raiders officials asked the band to stray off-script, too, with the ZZ Top cover of “Viva Las Vegas,” sliding into “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Santa Fe also took a run at the Raiders theme, “The Autumn Wind.”

Band leader Jerry Lopez said afterward, “For us, we hit a home run. It was fun to play Earth, Wind & Fire and Metallica in a really beautiful facility.”

Regardless of where it all leads, the Raiders have found a bonafide Las Vegas act, whose history dates more than 45 years.

The band has for decades referred to their shows as “The Healing.” The promise has been, you walk out feeling better than when you walked in. Lopez christened the gigs with that name as he was about to take the stage one night at Palace Station. He’d had a horrible day, and said, “’You know what? Let the healing begin.’ The band started playing, and all the pain was gone.”

The title has stuck, over myriad Vegas venues.

Santa Fe started their Vegas run as the wide-eyed backing band for topless dancers at the old Thunderbird hotel-casino on the north side of the Strip. The band’s first casino headliner gig was at the Mint in 1975. Lopez was just 17 years old, and the full horn section was 20 years in the offing.

The band crisscrossed the valley through Nero’s Nook and Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace, the lounge (and later showroom) at Tropicana, the since-closed lounge at Palace Station, The Lounge at the Palms, Club Madrid at Sunset Station, the South Point Showroom and Myron’s Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center.

About six years ago, the band recorded live performances for Royal Caribbean International and appeared on the cruise line’s virtual concert series. That company, too, has bought into “The Healing.”

Lopez’s most prominent international affiliation has been as guitarist on Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” 1999-2000 world tour.

Many band members have either attended the UNLV Jazz Studies program or have taught music at the university. The entire lineup was inducted into the UNLV College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame in 2019. The musicians have effectively created a path from the university to Vegas lounges — all the way to a Las Vegas Strip superstar residency production.

One night in January 2019, Lady Gaga’s friend and bandleader Brian Newman caught the band at the Copa Room. The next day, he emailed contract offers to the whole horn section to play Gaga’s “Jazz + Piano” production.

Four months later, leading to his “After Dark” debut at NoMad Restaurant, Newman said, “I’d already known about the Santa Fe boys when we came in to Las Vegas. I got here a few days early to meet with them, not really as an audition, but to be around them and see how tight they were together.”

Over the years, Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; James Taylor’s backing players (notably sax great “Blue Lou” Marini in July 2019); Tower of Power; and Elton John’s and Gwen Stefani’s bands have hit Santa Fe’s shows. Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross have made unbilled appearances, too, in the days the band played The Lounge at the Palms.

None of those places rival the spectacle that is Allegiant Stadium, of course.

After the band’s closing crescendo, Davis turned to the group in the owner’s suite and said, “This is a great little place we have here.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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