As part of a lineup of more than two dozen acts who played over two days, Patti Smith and band participated in the "Tibetan Freedom Concert". Part political action, part fundraiser, and a little bit rock and roll, acts contributed 20-30 minutes of their time, and their high-profile famous faces, to the New York version of last year's premiere event, which took place at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
(Other performers on the bill this year included MTV-friendly heavy hitters like U2, the Beastie Boys, Alanis Morisette, Bjork, Blur, the Foo Fighters; not to mention bits and pieces of REM, Pearl Jam, and Oasis. A handful of alterna-land cult favorites and hip-hop artists appeared, also: Porno for Pyros, the Jon Spencer Blues Exposion, A Tribe Called Quest, Biz Markie, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth among them.)
The political cause concerns the control exerted over Tibet by China since 1959, and the attendant oppression. It's been a cause close to Patti's heart since that time, when she claims that the takeover happened while she was doing a school project on Tibet.
Whereas the Tibet-related events and benefits she's participated in in the past have been somewhat upscale, reserved, and artsy, in places like Carnegie Hall, this was an event in a concrete football bowl headlined by the Beastie Boys, and it moved 46,000 $40 tickets for the the two days of performances.
Accompanied by one of the first hints of actual sunlight on the first, cloudy day of the festivities, Patti et al. emerged around 4, and Patti announced that while Tibet was a serious issue, people came to the concert have a good time, too, and that they were gonna try and provide one.
The six-song set was adventurous, including a brand-new song ("1959", with music written by bassist Tony Shanahan), the challenging "About A Boy", and the acoustic-driven dirge-like "Beneath the Southern Cross". ("BtSC" was dedicated to Jeff Buckley, whom she met in 1995 at the same venue during Lollapalooza, and who ended up contributing vocals to the recorded version.) The execution of the lot of it was dead on, as always, even though the mix from my vantage point (too close?) veered a bit to the tinny side, and swallowed up Patti's enunciation to the point that "1959" was largely incomprehensible.
Finishing off with a sure-to-please and rousing "Rock and Roll Nigger", Patti provided the kind of rock star swagger and charisma that was sorely missing from this outsized event of youngish alterna-acts, and the audience responded well and enthusiastically even before she engaged in some gratuitous "Let's take it back from MTV" rhetoric. It seemed like a miscalculation to me, but it got her the biggest reaction of her set, and garnered kudos from such esteemed online Webzines as Michael Kinsley's Slate.
Her references to "the way you were treated today", addressed directly to the audience, also mystified. It was hard to recall a concert where, as a patron, I felt such an invisible hand of care and attention to my comfort, safety, and all-around experience. Performers interviewed on television attested to the magnificent organizational skills of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (he'll always be MCA to me) and practically gushed over how well things seemed to be run.
If the audience got any shabby treatment that day, it was from the half-hour assault by Sonic Youth, which directly preceded Smith's set. The band apparently decided to take this opportunity to sculpt some dissonant metallic soundscapes. I don't know if they succeeded in doing anything except putting me in an extremely foul mood, however.
And in a final and effective (and ironic, don'cha think?) display of who's really in charge, MTV managed to put together a two-hour wrapup of the festival without any footage of Patti's set, a set regarded by more than one reviewer to be remarkable, and one of the highlights of the weekend.
Maybe if PS and Sonic Youth had been a little more in the spirit of non-violent resistance, everyone would have been better off. Which I think was the point.
Home point for Tony's Patti reviews.