On a warm and sunny afternoon in May, Patti Smith and band took a break from recording their new album in a neighboring county to "headline" a free street fair in Hoboken, New Jersey.
On a low stage set up in front of Hoboken's pretty but crumbling city hall, Patti and band (Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray on guitars, Tony Shanahan on bass, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums) played an hour and a quarter's worth of loud rock and roll, peppered with bar-band standards, Allen Ginsberg, Hank Williams, and Patti's own extemporaneous ruminations on everything from parking and architecture in Hoboken to the evils of alcohol.
To a person, everyone in the band looked healthy and rested, and Patti in particular looked tan and energetic. She also seems to have acquired a fun fashion sense, wearing an almost mod look: bright (Bright!) vintage hipster red, white, and black-striped straight-leg pants, a plain white T-shirt, and a relatively new black jacket. A flattering ensemble - nothing ripped, nothing hanging on by a thread. And obviously it afforded her easy movement, as she dismounted the stage and went back up unassisted several times before it was all over. She was almost bubbling with enthusiasm and smiles for all.
It's conceivable one would spend some time fretting about what the band would do on a sunny afternoon; that they'd maybe bend over so far backwards to please an audience potentially more of the "Just show me" than the "Just show up" variety, that some of their verve and unique flavor would be lost. While it was no-brainer to accurately predict that numbers like "About a Boy" would be mothballed, it was still a pleasant surprise that the set was as adventurous as it was.
With only one acoustic number ("Southern Cross") the day was high-energy, LOUD, and, when one stops to think about it, populated a rather lot of familiar/friendly "bar-band" numbers (or variations thereof): "Gloria", "Not Fade Away", "Smoke on the Water", "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", "Who Do You Love?", and (dare I say it?) Patti's own "Because the Night". But let's restate the obvious for good measure: how many street-fair bands do Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" over "Radio Ethiopia"? Not many, I think it's safe to say.
Throw in Patti's own showstoppers ("Kimberly", "Dancing Barefoot", "Free Money", "Gone Again") and you get a show that was, in a word, transcendant. After a shaky start with a version of "Who Do You Love?" that didn't compare well to their performance of it in February on the David Letterman show, they went on to cut it and then some. For an encore which required of Patti an improvised segue from a funky "Not Fade Away" to their full-blast "'Them' version" of "Gloria", she was able to pull out some very special stuff. Her 'babel' began by describing the shapes homesteaders make with their shadows in the window frames of abandoned buildings, and moved on to how they were looking for "one word"; some very evocative, and persistent, images came from that.
By the time it was all over, they had managed some rather dramatic (and some rather rockin') material in the Spring afternoon sunshine, and hopefully left lots of other folks walking away on air like I was.
When so much is out of your control, as it is in these situations, to come through with flying colors shows something pretty special. And no one makes it look easier.
Home point for Tony's Patti reviews.