Sunday, 11 August 2013


St. George's Church, Brighton, Fri 9th Aug

This marks, by my reckoning, the fifth time I've managed to see Patti Smith and every time just seems to enrich the overall experience. Returns multiply rather than diminish.

The time before last, I confidently stated that her music was at root about transformation. Though perhaps 'generalised' would be a better term. Inevitably, for someone so keen on such a suubject, she was never going to stick to just that.

Transformation is a description which best fits her first two albums, 'Horses' and 'Radio Ethiopia'. They're made up less of songs or compositions than tracks; hallucongenic poetry cross-bred with the convulsive storm of electric instruments, until the desired systematic derangement of the senses arrives. You know instinctively, even on first hearing, they're tapping into something incohate. What you have isn't a finished work so much as just one mainifestation from a potentially infinite variety. The two albums finish the only way they could, in the primordial chaos of 'Abyssinia', Smith less delivering lines than outpouring shards of imagery.

This night however, was much more focused on what Patti did next – become a classic, if unorothodox, songwriter. Perfectly suited to it's Church venue, grand yet initimite, it was an acoustic affair. The drummer didn't even show up on stage until several songs in, and sat on a stiff-backed chair behind his one drum. There were only two tracks from those early albums, the more song-based 'Redondo Beach' (with lyrics rewritten on the fly to reflect Brighton beach) and the classic 'Pissing In a River'. (The latter, which has always been something of a gospel number, working particularly well.)

This threw an emphasis on Smith's singing and words, often drowned in the multi-tracked cacophony of the early albums. Billed 'an evening of music and words', it also featured readings from her autobiography 'Just Kids'. (Which I have to confess to being yet to read.)

It was probably most similar to the Bexhill gig. (Ironically the performance which led to my ruminations on transformation) It had the same impromptu feel, with Smith claiming breezily she'd bumped into one band member on the beach. At the start of the encore, she stopped to ask if anyone in the audience could play guitar, then promptly handed the volunteer hers. He stayed onstage for the rest of the night, and took his bow with them. But overall it was better than Bexhill; smoother, more relaxed, it's chances more talking flight, it's road less bumpy.

Smith has a penchent for throwing in unexpected cover versions, and as ever these arrived like curveballs. 'Summertime Blues' was infectious fun, but for example a cover of Lennon's 'Beautiful Boy' (apparantly first performed at Meltdown) didn't add much to one of his weaker numbers. While you should expect the unexpected with Smith, at such times I couldn't help but reflect on all the numbers we weren't getting. (For example no 'Paths That Cross', a personal favourite which would have suited the line-up.)

Notably, however, the whole audience kept a keen ear. While everything was well-received, it was the highlights which won the most rapt applause. Perhaps they were just hard to miss. If you didn't get goose-bumps during 'Pissing In a River' or 'Beneath The Southern Cross', you probably don't have a pulse.

In 'My Blakean Year', she sings of the road paved with gold and the road that's “just a road.” There are not many butter adverts to contend with when it comes to Patti Smith. She's walked the long road for decades now, with no sign of stumbling. If she's not an inspiration, I can't imagine what is.

In the unlikely event of anyone being interested, here's what I said last time.

There seems a dearth of footage of this gig, perhaps because of her open antagonism to being photographed onstage. This version of 'Beneath the Southern Cross', from Palermo earlier in the month, looks to be a semi- acoustic break in an electric gig but may convey some of the feeling...


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