London, Brixton Academy, July 3rd 2004
She looked good. Thin, as ever. Hair just as wild and not noticeably grayer than last time, a little shorter perhaps. She opened with the title track to her new album, “Trampin’, which with anyone else would be a cliché but with Patti Smith means a short and slightly eccentric little ditty for voice and piano. This dispatched, she bounds into the business proper with the full electric guitar onslaught of “Stride Of The Mind” – also from the new album – which the visual backdrop reveals to be a song about Simon Of The Desert, the biblical character who was the subject of a short film by Bunuel. Patti always wears her cultural references on her sleeve; she revels in them, and invites her audience to do likewise. This is no small part of her appeal and her uniqueness. Her voice is a tad road-weary but she’s in a good mood tonight, grinning broadly, eyes shining, and she seems genuinely tongue-tied with pleasure at the love that emanates from her audience - which is split roughly equally between male and female, old and young. That’s a shame in a way, because a lot of us love to hear Patti talk and tell a few yarns. Never mind. “People Have The Power” yells out a solitary drunken bozo at one point, and at this Patti stops everything and responds: “I remember that,” she says, “I remember that. I remember a million people in London marching in the cold. I hope you do that over and over and over and over...” her voice trailed from the microphone. Then deadpan: “maybe you could have a barbeque…”
This changed the mood and Patti worked herself into a frenzy on a long rendition of “Gandhi”, another tribute to a hero off the new album. It was a surprise in that the last couple of times she has played London, she has been relatively calm, and now she was getting quite dangerous as she flailed around, breaking strings and knocking things over. Earlier, she had recalled glory days with a version of “Break It Up” from her very first album “Horses” – which she dedicated to Jim Morrison - it being, as she pointed out, the anniversary of his death. As she pounded her own breast for the weird vocal effect in the last verse, I thought how magnificently brave she was, and still is. She is a complete original who has maintained a reasonably successful career in the music business for nearly 30 years and who has never sold out: she has always remained true to her particular vision of poetry and rock’n’roll. That in itself is remarkable enough, but on the basis of her performance this evening, it would seem that, at 58 years old, she still has sufficient energy and passion to create work that can stand comparison with her best early songs.
Still, it’s the oldies that get the crowd and no mistake. Whilst the new material is listened to and received respectfully enough, “Free Money” is wildly acclaimed as the anthem it always has been and the final encore of “Gloria” is a terrific blast of purest rock’n’roll faith and devotion. The notorious blasphemy of the opening manifesto is delivered clearly and defiantly. I’d heard that Patti had had problems with it in the past. Maybe she has lost her faith in light of the extraordinary damning denunciation of the Iraq war that is “Radio Baghdad”. I can think of no other comparably successful artist in the rock field who has made such a powerful statement of condemnation. Against a startling backdrop of images from the Ancient Middle East, Patti and her musicians (Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray on guitars, Tony Shanahan on bass and piano, J.D. Daugherty on drums) work up a Shamanistic improvisation with Patti alternating between half-sung, half-spoken poetry and very odd but strangely effective clarinet playing. Finally she arrives at the phrase: “Robbing the cradle of civilization” and she repeats it over and over. It’s very effective: it’s good poetry and it’s powerful music. It’s been a very long time since anyone tried to incorporate John Coltrane into a rock’n’roll setting – in fact, I think the last person who tried was Patti Smith. When it works, it’s superb and when it doesn’t, it’s just a noise. But it’s a brave noise, a tough noise, a noise that means what it says. Talking about the music, it’s a delight that Patti is using piano again, if only sparingly. Maybe next time she’ll revive “Birdland”. Let’s hope next time isn’t too long because Patti Smith really is a performer to treasure, and she is very much loved and appreciated in London.
Adam Blake. London