Patti Smith

Irving Plaza, NYC

June 21 & 22, 1996 (2 perfs.)
[Contents copyright (c) 1996 - Anthony Rzepela]
Author's note:
As these shows were taking place, my access to babel, the Patti Smith Mailing list, mysteriously stopped, through no fault of the list's. Unable to see what other people had written about the shows, and just full of observations that couldn't wait, I posted a series of four short articles which were just off-the-cuff random observations, which I called Walking Blind. I've made them ("installments" 1, 2, 3, and 4) available here.

The "proper" review, pretentious language and all, wasn't posted to the babel list but follows below.

The Mass Media Machine has been plugging the return of Patti Smith for several months now, and just as every conceivable (and not always obvious) media outlet publishes interviews and reviews; in a week in which her first album in eight years and a box-set retrospective hits the stores and she appears on Letterman, Patti and her band brought it all to a head with two high-profile (filmed by the record company, dotted with celebrities and record company execs, that kind of high-profile) shows in New York City which she humbly claimed were just a lab test for an upcoming major European concert tour (but which she also admitted, at the top of the first performance, were a bit like an awards show.)

From the looks (and sounds) of these performances, Patti (and band) have been getting up to speed with little or no need to make up for lost time training. Finally faced with the considerable task of assembling a dignified, full-length, headlining, road-ready show (What DOES become a working legend most?) they have deftly incorporated parts of Patti's solo acoustic performances in 1995, and the full-tilt electric assault of the more frenetic moments of the December 1995 tour with Dylan, into an almost seamless whole.

Along the way, it has helped that Patti has dropped the overly personal aspects of her work and life from her performances, making her less tentative: a stronger performer, a better singer, better able to withstand the inevitable attacks and scrutiny of the limelight, and better able to deliver her work on the terms by which it will be eventually judged: without sentiment and without allowing the recent tragedies of her biography getting in the way. She now can joke and smile even during "Farewell Reel".

She may no longer believe in the overly romanticized rock and roll metaphors of her youth (rock stars as warriors) but she's smart enough to keep what works: namely, the armor.

Like Tina Turner, she won't bend to the lyrical conceits of oldies she covers in concert, including her own. Over two Plaza performances of Prince's 1984 hit "When Doves Cry", she purposefully changed the line in the chorus about being left standing alone to a less maudlin refrain. And the list of things she will not mouth from works written when she was 20 is ever-growing: she has rethought major parts of some of her signature works.

With all this as background, there's still the issue of how one handles putting on a show people have either been waiting 16 years for, or which will be compared to time-enhanced memories of youth. It's a treacherous task, indeed. There are few performers with an order as tall as Smith's is now.

It made perfect sense, then, that the first order of the evening was to deflate the considerable impact on the audience that Patti the *star* finally appearing onstage has. Worship is nice (at one point in the evening, she said she has gotten so much love recently on the comeback trail that she feels like a walking Hallmark card.) but you run the risk of not being heard. The solution? She comes out, greeted by mayhem, for poetry and "Ravens" from the new album; then her sister plays a song; then her 14-year-old son, an avowed Metallica fan, plays lead on "Smoke on the Water" with Lenny Kaye on vocal, then it's time for a short break. (this break was skipped at Saturday's show.) Rather than work the tired star-turn territory of these celebrity-obsesssed 90s, Patti's manipulation of the senses is an anti-tease: Here I am, get used to the idea, now for the rest of the evening, let's pay attention to some other things.

Her next task on this considerable trial? Winning over an audience shouting out oldies requests at the band with a set list featuring seven songs (over two nights) from a three-day-old album which is dominated by slow, soulful, and frequently mournful and very un-rock-and-roll sentiments and tempos.

While Patti won the war both nights, the battle seems to have been less successful: it was only one new song, "Wings", performed near the end of the second show, which got the audience's attention and enthusiasm to the degree that more familiar material did.

In the long run, this lukewarm reception will be just another accident of timing: the material on "Gone Again" is strong and focused, stage-friendly, and an excellent showcase for Smith's most powerful gifts.

For the inevitable string o' hits, Smith's choices were sure-fire: two complete numbers from "Horses", hits like "Dancing Barefoot" and "Because the Night" (the latter only on the second night: this song, her lone Top-20 hit, is most decidedly NOT a staple of Smith's scattered shows of late), and an encore which brought together "Land" and 1978's "Rock and Roll Nigger".

The band, featuring two alums from the days of the Patti Smith Group of the 70s, and a menagerie of collaborators and participants including Tom Verlaine, is an underrated (they were dismissed recently as a "bar band") mass of mind and muscle. Twice (during "Because the Night" and "Wicked Messenger") Patti blanked out on the lyrics, and twice the band was able to not miss a beat but travel backwards as if it were something they did every night. With just bass, drums, and one guitar (Lenny Kaye), they forged ahead with "Because The Night" to deliver a stunning rendition as powerful as the heavily produced keyboard-oriented hit recording.

Smith herself seemed happy to be here. Her voice exhibited a strength and smoothness unequalled in her history, and her attentions were professionally focused. At one point, a dead microphone did elicit some major rock-star prima donna attitude, but she wears it well. Some may miss the wandering talks she is still prone to occasionally, but there seemed to be a more important task at hand, and her enormous respect for her audience is clearly in evidence. In case you were wondering, her ferocious intelligence and charisma are still intact, too.

And like any good politician, she can make you both laugh and cry before she leaves the stage.

Not a bad deal for twenty-five bucks.

Copyright © Anthony J. Rzepela 1996

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