Though she has never quite reached the commercial level of playing to sold-out arenas and stadiums as a headliner on her own, Patti Smith’s status as one of the most truly iconic figures in rock and roll has never been in question.
Already recognized as a pioneering singer, poet, songwriter and author, Smith recently added actress to her resume, appearing as a recurring character on the procedural cop-drama Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
But performing this past Wednesday night at Seattle’s historic Neptune Theatre, the one-time reigning high priestess of punk-rock poetry showed that even at 66 years old, she has lost none of her passion or belief in the enduring power of her first love: rock and roll.
These days, Patti Smith’s image is far removed from the spiky-haired seventies punk-rocker that once inspired Gilda Radner’s dead-on parody (with her Candi Slice character) on the old Saturday Night Live. If anything, she looks more like your slightly more eccentric, hippie grandmother – with her long, flowing grey-streaked tresses – than the Keith Richards kid-sister sort of look she once wore so well.
Even so, Patti Smith – along with her great band, led by longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye – rocked the Neptune Wednesday night with all the fire and energy of someone more than half her age. Much as her fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen did in their arena shows last fall, the seemingly ageless Patti Smith seemed hellbent to prove that not only is rock not dead – neither is she.
The setlist featured newer tunes from her recent Banga album like the uncharacteristic (for Smith) pop-gem “April Fool,” but also drew generously from her classics Horses, Radio Ethiopia and Easter.
There was also a Nuggets medley from Kaye, who took over lead vocal duties from Smith for a quick round of psychedelic garage-rock covers from the Strangeloves, the Seeds, the Heartbreakers and the Blues Magoos. It was a frenetically played mini-set that was ripped straight from the grooves of the same great Nuggets anthology series Kaye once produced.
Patti Smith herself was as animated and engaging as I’ve ever seen her. Telling one of many humorous stories during the rarely played “Distant Fingers,” she managed to reference everything from her days playing at New York’s legendary CBGB’s with Television’s Tom Verlaine, to a plug for the cable TV series The Killing.
The set also included plenty of material more familiar to fans. There were spot-on versions of “Dancing Barefoot,” “Pissing In A River” and of course, her biggest hit “Because The Night.” Patti Smith also recently performed the latter during the MusiCares tribute to its co-author Bruce Springsteen during Grammy week.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the two hour show came towards the end, when she dusted off “Land” – one of the two stream-of-consciousness centerpieces (the other being the rarely played “Birdland”), from her brilliant 1975 debut Horses. The band seemed to be teasing “Gloria” at first, before Smith soon shifted into that trance-like “other place” she so often does in concert. It was a stunning performance of this epic song, perfectly capped when the band shifted back into “Gloria” at the end.
“Rock And Roll Nigger” made its expected appearance in the encores. But this was a particularly charged version, which found Smith screaming “were all f**king niggers” at the end. For those of you wondering, in Patti Smith’s song, the “n-word” is not meant as a derogatory epithet, but rather as a term of empowerment.
As Patti Smith left the stage, she lifted up her guitar defiantly and said “for our generation, this is the only weapon you’ll ever need.”
1. April Fool
2. Redondo Beach
4. Ghost Dance
6. Free Money
7. Dancing Barefoot
8. Beneath the Southern Cross
9. Night Time (The Strangeloves cover/Lenny Kaye on lead vocal)
10. (We Ain’t Got) Nothing Yet (Blues Magoos cover/Lenny Kaye on lead vocal)
11. Born to Lose (The Heartbreakers cover/Lenny Kaye on lead vocal)
12. Pushin’ Too Hard (The Seeds cover/Lenny Kaye on lead vocal)
13. We Three
14. Because the Night
15. Pissing in a River
17. Gloria (Them cover)
20. Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger