Patti Smith returned to the SummerStage in Central Park for a special post-season performance that completed a cycle of sorts. It's a venue that's been a big part of her long, slow comeback from her self-imposed "retirement" in 1980. She read poetry and sang acapella here in 1993, read and sang with light accompaniment in 1995, and now, after a European tour, a new album, and with a full-fledged, road-hardened rock and roll band behind her, she stalked her stage for two hours like the True Rock Star she is, worked the crowd into a frenzy of love and appreciation, and sang one of the longest and most exhausting sets she's done in the past year.
It was a night that was supposed to be filled with rain, and a weeknight that unnamed nay-sayers claimed would find the park venue less than full. The rain stayed away, the people came, and, once Patti's mom Beverly successfully fought the traffic, PS and most of the band she's been touring with since December of last year hit the stage for a long, hard, traditional rock and roll show.
For most acts, "traditional" doesn't mean opening with a poetry reading and launching into one of your most notoriously disliked feedback-and-noise-fests (Radio Ethiopia, from her 2nd LP), bringing your mom up to the mike mid-show, or singing backup while your teenage son plays lead guitar, especially when the audience includes a couple-hundred specially invited "college"/alternative music industry apparatchiks, but this is Patti Smith, and she never does anything nice and easy.
For this gig, her band's usual lineup was shortchanged. Regular Special Guest guitarist Tom Verlaine had prior commitments, and so with absolutely vital slide work on one song handled by Zeke Shein from Matt Umanov guitars in NYC, and a slightly bigger musical role than usual for the fuzzbox tones and rhythmic strumming of twenty-something Oliver Ray, the show went on.
(Antother special guest was Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who joined the band for its first encore, Rock and Roll Nigger, creating a temporary resource crisis of sorts with respect to available amplifiers and guitars.)
In addition to performing songs that had to be pulled from mothballs (Radio Ethiopia, Ain't It Strange, and Kimberly, all of which had been abandoned since the '70s), the band also threw out much of their working strategy developed over the last few months. Their regular and highly effective show-closer (a spoken People Have the Power, segued into an electrifying Gone Again) was moved to almost the top of the set. Gone was Lenny Kaye's solo spot; the slow-burn build which in the past utilized multiple readings and/or a solo spot for Patti's sister also was abandoned. Patti was determined to carry a much larger weight than has been customary recently, and unlike Sisyphus, who still struggles, she tossed her burden up and over the other side of the mountain.
Gone from the set also were staples like Farewell Reel and Ravens, both found on the Gone Again CD, and both a part of the unmarketable folky feel of the disc.
This was a night of rock and roll.
For Beneath the Southern Cross, which found the principals seated and in a semi-circle, acoustics in hand as usual, the delivery was like the Who's acoustic treatments of late: with a perceptible feeling that you're looking at containers and restraints barely able to hold their contents, which are insistently burning a hole in the side like radioactive material.
From the first notes of Radio Ethiopia, it was pretty obviously a 'boys night out': the music was muscular, heavy, young, and sexy. It was a rock and roll gang with a mission, the sort of mentality that has become quite unfashionable in the circles of Smith's still-working contemporaries like Sting and the Rolling Stones.
Crowd-pleasing was definitely in order, too. The punch of covering Buddy Holly's Not fade Away was last used when Patti and the band opened for Bob Dylan and needed a hot closer. Rather than humbly hide herself as usual during son Jackson's showcase, she plopped herself on the edge of the stage, front and center, out of the reach of stage lighting, but obviously burning white-hot.
The longer-than-usual set (two hours before any encore) eventually took its toll on her voice, which gave out before the final encore, (The Jackson Song, the 1988 lullaby dedicated to her son which she had performed without a hitch at soundcheck four hours earlier) and her stamina, which seemed to disappear smack in the middle of Gloria with the suddenness of a diabetic shock.
She apologized, before the night was over, for slowing down the proceedings, but it was impossible to find anyone in the crowd who had a problem with that.
It wasn't the kind of performance one could sustain on schedule and demand for any length of time, but the magical ones rarely are.
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