Go to any YouTube video of Patti Smith and look at the comments. Most of them look like little notes left at the feet of a saint in a sacred grotto. The unbelievers have their say as well, and as often happens, their skepticism or rancor provokes the faithful’s pugnacity. The language of religion is often used to describe Smith and, at the risk of using an over-extended metaphor, her performances, especially in Paris, always feel like visitations. Of course, Patti is not a saint or a martyr; she’s a dynamic artist whose ageless message is able to rev up those too young to have seen her early performances as well as those old enough to remember.
France loves her visionary saints: Bernadette of Lourdes, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. But it’s Joan of Arc’s inspiring call for the people’s rage against oppression and righteousness, her androgyny, that seem to resonate with Smith’s French fans. (It might also be that the average French person is more familiar with the Droits de l’Homme, written in 1789, than the Americans are with their equivalent Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.) They receive Patti Smith with revolutionary zeal, and the feelings are mutual.
Last month in Paris, with four guitars, a piano, and later in the set a fifth guitar and violin, Smith brought her usual lightning and thunder to the Cité de la Musique, which held a crowd generously allowed to overflow its thousand-person capacity. Having been to a number of Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye performances in Paris and New York, I can say that there was a subtle but significant change in the atmosphere on the stage. Aside from the hyper-electric power that the pair have maintained for over four decades, the energy on stage seemed to be fueling a celebration of having arrived.
This year Patti Smith published a memoir. She’s won the National Book Award and is now a sanctioned part of the historical narrative. The songs are part of this larger memory, and she enriches them by introducing each song with an anecdote delivered with a sense of her own pleasure in making these connections. Her memories trace the most germinal period in her life, a life whose trajectory coincides with the last great flush of urban American culture. Before opening with her cover of Dylan’s “Spanish Boots,” she tells us that when she was a young teenager she went to her first acoustic concert to see Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her love of the song was apparent, and there was a beautifully increased richness to her voice as it slid seamlessly into the lower registers.
The group was tighter than ever. Lenny Kaye, his tall lean body moving on stage like a Lautrecian dancer, was in peak form. “Beneath the Southern Cross” was flawless, the four guitars creating a vibrating tapestry that enveloped the space in cosmic sound. The band’s rendition of “We Three,” which remains one of their signature doo-wop-inspired originals, was gorgeous. There was much clowning around, and there was a shared joy in that Smith clearly loved performing as much as we loved watching her do it. She fumbled for her reading glasses to read the lyrics of “Strawberry Fields” from a sheet of paper, giggling. At one point she re-braided her hair, and after a false start she restarted a song because she didn’t like where it was going. But the band’s enduring freshness and spontaneity risks minor flaws: At the end of “We Three,” Smith announced, “I was singing a little flat.”
Jesse Smith played piano, but her sound was overcome by the four guitars—two of which, despite the show’s being advertised as an acoustic evening, were electrified—and during “Grateful” the lyrics got buried. Smith dedicated “Grateful” to Jerry Garcia, adding “Unfortunately, I don’t play like him.” True, but an unnecessary comparison.
Smith’s covers lend a different emphasis to the originals, but she makes them her own. As a result she often reveals some new aspect, as she did with the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”
For “Dancing Barefoot” Smith introduced two Italian musicians: Luca Lanzi on guitar and Andreas Petermann on violin. For those unfamiliar with them, as I was, according to Wikipedia they’re part of the “Italo-Celtic, Euro-socialist folk-rock band” Casa del Vento. They added another layer of complex intensity to the mix.
“People Have the Power” was dedicated to the “humble fruit vendor who helped to start a jasmine revolution,” referring to the man who set himself on fire and started the Tunisian demonstrations. Smith also dedicated a couple of songs, as in the case of “Ghost Dancers” (for Pierre Clemente) with only a name. At times no explicit dedication was necessary, as with two of her most lyrical love songs: “Mother Rose,” written for her mother, and “Wing,” for Jean Genet.
The band ended with two encores. The audience didn’t want them to leave, and they weren’t coy about returning to the stage. There was no false modesty here. All, especially Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, were having a great time.
BONNY FINBERG is a writer whose fiction, poetry, and reviews can be found in many print and online journals and anthologies. Some of her writing and photographs can be found at bonny-finberg.blogspot.com.