Patti Smith, rock legend, is touring in support of her new book Just Kids, a biographical work detailing her move to New York City and intended as a tribute of sorts to her late friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe. I was lucky enough to see her on her UK jaunt in the intimate surrounds of Leamington Assembly. The show was billed as “An Evening of Words and Music.” It was. It was also an evening to remember.
Joined by Tony Shanahan on guitars and keyboard, plus special guest Lenny Kaye who flew in specially, Patti sang, read from her book, and played guitar. In between her songs, which had a real graceful power, her readings were spellbinding and well-placed. I picked up a signed copy of Just Kids and can’t wait to read it. A glance through suggests it’s accessible, heartfelt, and lovingly honest.
She was thoroughly relaxed and funny, and the crowd lapped it up. At 63, she had an energy and potency I’ve rarely seen at a live concert and, singing songs that are upwards of 30 years old, they still surprise and thrill with elasticity and crackling power. Even when, early on, she made a couple of mistakes with the wrong chord progressions, she recovered like the pro she is and got the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.
It was so refreshing to see such an esteemed rock legend give such a humble, honest, real performance. It all had a looseness and spontaneity that recalled Rickie Lee Jones’ show at London’s Cadogan Hall last November. Sure, there was a set list, and Patti knew whereabouts she was reading from, but stilted and fussy this was certainly not.
Another thing that struck me was the sheer strength of her voice. It’s probably in the best shape it’s ever been, no exaggeration, and that’s something of a pop music anomaly. You may have expected her voice to have lost some power or range with the years. Instead, it’s dark, rich, and beautiful. There’s a cliche about getting “chills,” but I really experienced it here when Patti got lost in the swirling incantations of the spooky “Dancing Barefoot” or the spiky rock’n’roll of “Gloria.”
There was elegance and grace on a cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and her own “Mother Rose,” as well as a sinister beauty on crowd favourite “Because the Night” and a sublime “Free Money.” Other highlights included the moody “Pissing In A River,” the anthemic “People Have the Power,” precipitating a move into the crowd (although the poor woman soon retreated back to the stage, beset by crazed dancers!), and “Rock N Roll Nigger,” which got the crowd going, to say the least.
I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again. Her energy was boundless and her stage presence electric; funny, warm, but possessed of a special kind of pop music intelligence, it was fascinating to see what can only be described as a mercurial rock genius in her element. If you get the chance to see Patti Smith live, take it.
For your delectation, here is “Gloria” from the show: