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Patti Smith's Live at Montreux 2005 encapsulates 30 years of the poet/musician's on-stage performances.

Blu-ray Music Review: Patti Smith – Live at Montreux 2005

Perhaps you’re like me. Back in 1975, you picked up a copy of Horses and were astonished to hear the first chords and lyrics for “Gloria.” “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” In very short order, you knew you were hearing a voice you’d be paying attention to for some time to come.

Thirty years later, it was quite evident Patti Smith had indeed built a distinctive legacy and an appreciative audience when she and her band took to the stage in Montreux on July 3, 2005 to support their 2004 album, Trampin’. Sadly, for this listener, she didn’t perform “Gloria” that night. But, as demonstrated on Live at Montreux 2005, the spirit of Horses was there even before the band struck up “Redondo Beach.” You can see it as Patti stands behind the mic wearing the same androgynous outfit she’d worn on her debut album cover in that iconic photo shot by Robert Mapplethorpe.

The three decades of the Patti Smith Group is also demonstrated by the musicians who have remained a vital part of her artistic continuity. Lenny Kaye (guitar & vocals) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) have been with Smith since Horses and share many co-writing credits with her. Tony Shanahan (bass, keyboards and vocals) has been in the band since 1996. The only player to appear at Montreux with a short tenure was Television’s Tom Verlaine on guitar, and he departed shortly thereafter.

Of course, the Montreux setlist also drew from Smith’s long canon of recordings. Smith sings the very raw and primitive “Ain’t It Strange” from Radio Ethiopia (1976) and delivers a straightforward rendition of her 1978 hit, “Because the Night,” the song she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen. From 1979’s Wave, we get the psychedelic Velvet Underground-flavored jam, “Dancing Barefoot.” From the same album, Smith brings out her squawking clarinet for “7 Ways Of Going,” which she dedicated to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. “Beneath The Southern Cross” originally appeared on Gone Again, the 1996 album which mourned a number of close friends and partners in Smith’s life. The concert’s closer is appropriately the 1988 anthem “People Have the Power” from Dream of Life where, again, Smith pays homage to jazz giants like Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Much of the performance offers the then-newer material from Trampin’ which shows Smith’s creative DNA still included strands from Leonard Cohen, The Doors, and Lou Reed. There’s “Free Money” and the powerful, punkish, stomping “25th Floor,” with its strangely tuned guitar very evocative of Robby Kreiger’s work in the ’60s. In her introduction to the deceptively gentle “Peaceable Kingdom,” Smith says the song is about the terrible casualties of war, particularly in Iraq. For some reason, the group didn’t do “Jubilee” which had been released as the album’s single. I suppose that omission wasn’t important and suspect most of the audience came having already heard the song and Trampin’ as a whole. If not, I’m certain they’d be leaving determined to pick up their copy to replay what they were baptized in that June night.

Along the way, the group performed two non-Smith numbers. Smith sings her version of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which isn’t much different from anyone else’s rendition. While we don’t get “Gloria,” the band does “Not Fade Away/Memento Mori” in which Smith integrates her poetic lines into the Buddy Holly rhythm. Not surprisingly, her imagery is full of commentary on what organized religion does to us very much in the spirit of “Gloria.”

As with most Montreux concerts, Smith’s program is captured with exquisite quality, both aurally and visually. With an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and a 1080i transfer, we can see detailed facial expressions such as Smith’s increasing sweat lines. The lighting goes back and forth between a pinkish-red and blue tone, and musicians will likely appreciate the camera shots of the guitar players hand and finger movements.

The Blu-ray version of the concert gives you the choice of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo fold down. Why you’d settle for anything less than 5.1 is beyond me, even if you anticipate a simplistic punk mix. The instrumental parts are often extremely nuanced, especially the Eastern drones of the guitars. While the backing vocals will win no awards for outstanding harmonies, they are serviceable enough. Equally noteworthy is that the band’s sound has a very intimate, small club feel while being recorded in a rather large-scale venue. So the drums, for example, sound like they’re sitting just a few feet away.

There are no bonus features on Live at Montreux 2005 and I can think of only one thing that would have enhanced the experience. A booklet of the lyrics. True, those who want to focus on Smith’s poetry can go online and find the words easily enough. But it would be nice to be able to watch the concert and follow along, if one would care to, with the verses and refrains handy to underline that part of the show.

As it happens, Live at Montreux 2005 is the first video presentation ever officially released for the Patti Smith Group. This shouldn’t have taken 30 years. This hopefully won’t be the last. While many of us have been following Smith for years, I suspect there will be delightful surprises on Live at Montreux 2005. If not, well, surprises aren’t really the point. That is, unless you’re not all that familiar with Smith. If that’s the case, this disc would be an ideal introduction and will likely send you on a trip into that 30-year catalogue.

About Wesley Britton

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