By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007
Most rock artists pump up their performances with instrumental solos. The iconoclastic Patti Smith fills hers with verbal solos.
It's not for nothing that she's known as punk rock's poet laureate.
As always, Smith wasn't content to let the scripted lyrics carry her sold-out show Friday night at the 9:30 club. She spent a good chunk of her 135 minutes onstage extemporaneously singing and speaking (and sometimes speak-singing), treating the set list as a mere outline.
"My Blakean Year," for instance, was embellished with words about human hearts and peace and love and mercy. Forever the provocateur, Smith even prefaced the song with an ad-libbed verse about the District's campaign for statehood. Nodding to the news of the day, Smith also addressed the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in an apparently improvised spoken-word piece set to buzzing music.
Smith took lyrical liberties, too, with pieces that weren't her own. (No surprise, really, given that she opened her very first album, 1975's epochal "Horses," with a version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" to which she'd added the now-legendary opening line: "Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not mine.") Here, a downshifted version of Nirvana's raging anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" included a few extra words about its author, Kurt Cobain. And a dramatic cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic "Are You Experienced?" included a poetic flourish in which Smith referenced Pinocchio, the belly of the whale, human flowers and tiger maulings. (It sounded significantly better live than it looks on this page, reader. Really.) More than three decades after she shook up the rock scene with her raw, electrifying blend of street poetry and garage-rock passion, Smith remains a mesmerizing and potent presence.
Friday, two days before her 61st birthday, she was in rare riot-grrl form, though not necessarily great voice: Performing in Washington for the first time since her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, she apologized repeatedly for the ragged state of her vocals. It was somewhat amusing, given that Smith's voice is hardly noted for its bell-like clarity. Still, she clearly struggled in opening her encore with "O Holy Night." Yes, the Christmas carol with the lyrics about our dear Savior's birth and hearing angels singing and such. It was a tender and sincere performance, during which the audience was so silent that you could actually hear jaws dropping in the club.
Wearing a black jacket over a baggy white T-shirt with a peace sign and "LOVE" scribbled across the front, Smith hectored a fan near the front of the stage, railed against Donald Trump and ranted about children's television shows ("Romper Room" in particular).
At one point, she set off on an epic riff about becoming obsessed with "Tristan and Isolde" after seeing the Wagner opera staged in Italy during a recent trip. And we do mean trip: Smith told a tale of walking onto the La Scala stage after the performance and sipping the potion that has a starring role in the story -- which made her hallucinate to the point that the set suddenly looked like Jell-O. Which, Smith said, she started to eat -- only to be interrupted by the opera house's director, who was persuaded to join in the fantastical feast. And then, Smith said, she looked up and noticed that the man had floppy white ears.
It was absurdist storytelling as performance art. It was also the most creative song introduction I've ever heard, as Smith immediately launched into Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic-rock classic "White Rabbit." ("One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small/And the ones that Mother gives you/Don't do anything at all.")
The set was heavy on borrowed material, but that was to be expected: Smith's most recent album, "Twelve," is nothing but covers. But she dipped into her own catalogue for more than a few songs, including her best-known original, "Because the Night" (co-written with Bruce Springsteen), and 1975's "Redondo Beach," whose juxtaposition of a jaunty reggae groove and lyrics that lament the suicide of a girlfriend is still jarring all these years later.
Backed by guitarists Lenny Kaye and her son Jackson Smith, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist-keyboardist Tony Shanahan, Smith didn't rock with the sustained intensity one might expect from the godmother of punk. In fact, there was a stunning quietude to some of her material, such "Ghost Dance" and the jazzy torch song "We Three."
"I'm sorry -- I have become a folk singer," she said by way of introducing "Beneath the Southern Cross," which, indeed, began as a loping acoustic waltz built around the strummy guitars of Smith and her longtime collaborator Kaye. But the song eventually picked up velocity, volume and electricity, turning into something more muscular as Smith howled into the microphone while Jackson Smith fired a volley of scorching Southern-blues licks on his guitar. (He seemed more like the long-lost Allman Brother than the son of Smith and the late MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith.)
But it was hardly the show's most incendiary moment. That came while Patti Smith was away from the stage, taking a bathroom break, while Kaye led the band through the 1960s garage-rock nugget "Pushin' Too Hard," by the Seeds. The group bashed and burned through the song, sounding more feral than at any other point during the show.
Not that the song's raw power rendered Smith speechless or anything. Retaking the stage, she said that she hadn't actually gone to the restroom -- that she'd been picking up boys instead. Which led to an entertaining story about flirting with Tom Verlaine at CBGB in 1974.
Just another spoken solo on a night filled with them.