Patti Smith

9:30 Club, Washington, DC

January 2 & 3, 1997
[2 performances]
[Contents copyright (c) 1997 - Anthony Rzepela]

Patti Smith: Till Victory

Like last June's two shows at New York's Irving Plaza, which preceded a European tour of some two dozen shows, Patti Smith and her 4-man band took the opportunity offered by an eager and Smith-hungry (if small) audience in Washington DC to do a tryout for the show they are taking overseas, this time to Japan and Australia.

Over the course of two nights, Smith and the band hunkered down to deliver two sure-fire shows, which is not to say risk-free: they were evidently sure-fire only after the fact. With newfound focus and discipline, they can now deftly combine just-so proportions of volume, beauty, poetry, vocal power, and rock and roll to produce, seemingly on demand, the kind of show that will be equally compelling in the huge Australian stadium settings for which they're bound, as well as the places not much larger than the 1,500 capacity 9:30 club.

Still a vital part of the PS concert experience is the self-contained 'opening act': some poetry read by Smith, an acoustic number or two, and a guest spot reserved for someone besides the star herself to be featured. Over these two performances, it was her son Jackson who closed this opening set: one night with a charmingly shy vocal debut on Jimi Hendrix' "Red House".

Smith and crew seem to be giving this very important part of the show much more attention than in the past, and the rewards for the audience are substantial. Smith is now reading more than just "Piss Factory" to open the show (indeed, on show 2 it was dropped altogether) - she's doing as many as three read pieces - and people listened. A stunning and dramatic new acoustic arrangement has been worked out for her classic "babelogue" (a work which is familiar to most of her rock audience as the hard-rock and very electric poetry rave-up which introduces 1978's "Rock and Roll Nigger") and that too got the audience's attention and respect.

Also to be praised is Smith's attention to diction and precision (this was one of the few recent concert readings of "Piss Factory" without an alliterative flub) and her willingness to take things as slowly as the individual works demanded.

When it came time to rock and roll, the band let loose like a relentless steamroller on the first show: opening with "Radio Ethiopia" and then going into a fierce and full-blooded "Dancing Barefoot" (which prompted one audience member to later shout "Play 'Dancing Barefoot' again!") followed by "Wicked Messenger", the intensity was maintained even through the most quiet numbers ("Wing") and the infamous Smith detours. Smith's self-consciousness with respect to her role in supposedly bringing things to a halt by spacing out on the lyrics was little more than a conceit. The band was unstoppable, supportive, generous, and flexible. It was not conceivable before tonight that 1976's "Ain't It Strange" could be begun with the singer taking the assistance of a sock puppet, and retain all of its power, but there you have it.

Between having the volume set at bone-shaking levels, and an exceptionally driven vocal from Smith on "About a Boy", the band finally managed to capture the attention of the audience to such a degree with that number that the pause afterwards was free of the incessant cat-calls, requests, and attempts at conversation that seem to plague every Smith show these days.

Closing out with an especially fluid and musical "People have The Power" (this tune easily degenerates into a marching dirge if one is not careful), and a mega-funky (yes, mega-funky) "Not Fade Away", the total control and general euphoria which PS and cohorts had earned was quickly broken during the one-song encore ("Rock and Roll Nigger") due to an unpleasant interaction between Smith and an overzealous patron, resulting in an abrupt end to a magnificent show of power and talent.

(Now is probably a good as time as any to praise the increased contributions of guitarist and Smith collaborator Oliver Ray over these past few months. Originally sidelined to occasional use when guest star Tom Verlaine was a part of Smith's show, Ray is now a fixture in the electric configuration of the band, and his style is fluid and obviously still not set in stone. His playing is pretty, and has just the right dash of garage-band honesty and grit. There's no lead-guitar star in Smith's band at the moment, and Ray's musical and physical energy seem infectious.)

Returning the next night with a substantially revamped set (over the two nights, nine individual songs were in exactly one set) things were not as intense from a technological point of view: the volume, even during "About a Boy", never got to the levels of the first show, and individual arrangements (especially "Dancing Barefoot") relied less on the full-on attack of the instumentation than they did on the power of the songwriting and a show which was self-propelling at its own pace, and left out in front of all to find, for themselves, where the peaks and valleys were going to be.

In other words, it was not going to be laid out for the audience, with predefined fireworks spots, but it would be much more in the spirit of what the Patti Smith Group of the 70s did on their most successful nights: develop an experience with a (for lack of a better term) 'feminine' energy, where (as they insisted in interviews back then) one could repeatedly come, rather than the masculine approach, where one shoots a load and falls asleep.

Perhaps the surrender of control was involuntary: plagued by a frog in the throat barely a third of the way through the show, Smith was compelled to take a 'voice break', and a Waylon Jennings song (with Lenny Kaye on lead vocals) was inserted in the set.

Returning with full vocal power intact for the rest of the night, and to complete a show that clearly was not designed for payoff like the night before ("Radio Ethiopia" was dropped, then returned to the set; a new, still unreleased song was debuted) things went better than anyone could have possibly hoped. A rollicking "Summer Cannibals", a magical and uplifting "Kimberly", and a pristine "Wild Leaves" all came down the pike.

For the final encore, "Land" segued into "Gloria", with Smith's impromptu 'babelogue' telling quite a different story from the traditional arrangement to link them: Johnny of "Land" fame evades the ritual buggering/rape of her 1975 work, rejecting an unattractive suitor (with a 'jelly belly') who watches Johnny look out the window, at some sweet young thing ... well, you know the rest.

Although, it may not be possible to relay the ferocity of both the rejuvenated audience and a manic Smith chanting "G-L-O-R-I-A" at the end.

It wasn't stomping to the oldies.
It wasn't concert-wrap-up claptrap.
It was a victory cry.

Copyright © Anthony J. Rzepela 1997

back to babelogue

Tony's Patti clippings Home point for Tony's Patti clippings.

Tony's Patti reviews Home point for Tony's Patti reviews.