(De Le Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Fri 28th Jan)
There’s nothing you could possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other, so we may as well get started. True to form, each of the three times I’ve seen her has had a character all it’s own, not just been a greatest-hits set-list in a rejigged order. Each of these has had its ups and downs, but then things are better that way.
First time, now nearly a decade ago, she played a hungry, ballsy set, which grabbed you by the lapels to announce “I’m back!” Her determination to take things forward, like she was burning up her back catalogue for fuel, was sometimes a little constrained by the pick-up band struggling to keep up.
Next she was reunited with many of her old cohorts (Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine and all), a gathering of the great and good to the point where there could have been a Masters At Work sign hung over the stage. This was a sight to behold indeed, but like any coin had its underside. At times it became indulgent in the wrong way. There were a couple of covers in particular which, delivered in singalong fashion, became not crowd-pleasing so much as luvvyish - like a bad episode of Jools Holland.
And then there was this most recent bash...
Like many, Smith is as significant for what she didn’t do as what she did. A classic example must be the long break she took from music-making, releasing but one album over a fifteen-year period, and not upping the frequency till she felt like it again. Such indifference to careerism seems innate in her. When a heckler asks her when the new album’s out she takes mock umbrage. (“What am I, Nostradamus? You sound like my record company, man.”) ...which is of course partly why we’re here – we’re here because if she is, it means she wants to be!
It was notable that the most referenced period was around this impasse, as if the non-years merely compressed in her mind. Yet the gig seem mostly based around the (for want of a better word) ‘come-back’ album, 1996’s ’Gone Again.’ This wasn’t just the most visited, the acoustic line-up reflected it’s softer tones and more spiritual themes. (Rather than the harder sound and more political lyrics of subsequent albums.) It would be hard to determine whether the sound determined the set-list or vice versa, though I’d guess at the second.
As fate would have it, this is among my favourites of her albums. Though starting out as a punk rocker, Smith always had a voice for acoustic music. It has a tremulous quality which seems ready-set for the open tunings of folk; just listen to the way she pronounces “I”s. (Most obviously on the chorus of ’Gloria.’)
Two ad-libs from different gigs end up epitomising their differences. With Lenny Kaye, after receiving another rapt round of applause she explained “I been practisin’.” This time she introduces ‘Gloria’ by saying “we didn’t rehearse this next one much. Matter of fact, we didn’t rehearse anything very much!”
Frankly, it sounds under-rehearsed – but not necessarily in a bad way. Smith’s songs tend to be about transformation, taking place in a world in flux. The boy is less likely to get the girl than turn into a bird. (Unless he does get the girl but in so doing they both turn into horses. Or rivers. Or the like.) Her fondness for extemporising live, for eschewing fixed versions of songs, must be related to this.
Nothing tonight bursts into flows of free-form improvisatory words and music like it might have in the old days. But the songs are open, loose-jointed, of the moment. Dammit, the word for the way they sound is ”live!” We’ve just got un-used to live music sounding that way. With her daughter on piano and band member Patrick Wolf “picked up in London” it feels less like a formal concert than a night round Aunty Patti’s place, where the feeling comes over everyone to see if they can remember the old songs.
Too much rehearsal, just like too much musicianship, can pack-drill a song into submission, make it a mechanised simulcara of itself. “Recitals” are supposed to belong to classical music, but rock bands sometimes just don’t want to confess to the name. Yet under-rehearsed isn’t automatically a good thing either – it can just mean that people end up not very well rehearsed. And we get some of that too...
The end result is a thing thrown to extremes, working very well indeed then the next minute barely functional. ‘Wing’ winged it in just about every sense of the word. During ‘Birdland’s celebrated “go up” sequence, there’s no way any of us remained in our seats – we really did get swept up with the greased tractors, ravens, UFOs and all the rest of that stuff. But ‘Paths That Cross’ was more walk-through than flight, as if the band were too focused on their fretboards and getting through it to start looking up.
After first seeing Smith I commented: “Live, she comes across a somewhat double-edged character. Partly the brassy NY punk poetess of legend, bashing at guitars and putting down hecklers. But she’s part mischievous child, all wide eyes and impish grins.” (I’d paste the link but it’s from Lucid Frenzy’s Olde Print Days.) To reduce it to rather crude terms, the punk pioneer is also half-hippy. Huge fan of ’Gone Again’ as I am, served live it did throw the emphasis on Smith the wide-eyed visionary. At which point I find I rather like both characters co-existing.
I have to confess to not being entirely sure what to make of this feeling. Are ‘punk’ and ‘hippy’ labels for elements which only become a useful substance in combination, like hydrogen and oxygen producing water? Or is one or the other just like a substance which is best taken in dilution, like lemon squash? Whichever, I find the two have to co-exist somehow. An acoustic, ‘visionary’ set followed by an electric ‘punk’ one wouldn’t do it at all.
Whichever, I did find the less adulterated hippyness to at times draw out the cynic in me. In an admittedly off-the-cuff remark, after playing ‘Ghost Dance’, she exulted that Hopi indians have a name with “hope” in it. Well not in theirlanguage, the language that is actually endangered! (It is quite possible years of Brighton life, dodging dreadlocks and didgeridoos, have given me a hair trigger for hippyshit.)
In short, of the three times I’ve seen Smith the last might be the least. Yet at the same time it’s great that she’s stuck to her guns in giving something I’ve not seen her do before, and if it had it’s ups and downs... oh, you know! The highpoints could keep me going for years – or until the next time she’s around. (Of course I’d see her again in a heartbeat.) Any Smith gig is a stellar event. After the deaths of Ari Up and Captain Beefheart, it’s heartening to see some legends are still living.