During Patti Smith’s recent performance at The Anthem, David LaMason (who shot the pictures accompanying this post) said to me, “She hasn’t lost any of her magic.” The “poet laureate of punk rock” hasn’t slowed down at all with age. Her once-black hair may now be silver-white, but Smith still has the same intensity and passion she’s always had. Some people have what they call “star quality”; you can’t take your eyes off of them. Patti Smith is one of those people.
Smith is known for rocking hard, but her band understood their job on this night. They didn’t overdo the volume, letting Smith’s vocals come to the front of the sound. A lot of bands could learn from this show about playing so that the singer and lyrics are emphasized, rather than washed out by the instruments.
Politics have always been central to Smith’s music, and her show at The Anthem on Sept. 16 was no exception. She has a distinctly democratic vision, one that sees the unity between the working class and artists, most of whom are, themselves, working class. Introducing “In My Blakean Years,” she talked about how many artists we now regard as great, like Vincent Van Gogh and Herman Melville, died believing themselves to be failures. The English mystic poet William Blake never met with success, either.
The lesson, Smith said, is “just do the fucking work.” She sent the song out “heralding the workers and the underappreciated workers,” noting the autoworker strike that began recently.
Watch Patti Smith perform “My Blakean Year” live from the New York Public Library in 2010 via YouTube:
In some sense, this entire set was political, but that fact was more apparent at some moments than others. Before playing “Beneath the Southern Cross,” Patti told the audience, “We have to keep all those struggling in our consciousness,” and she dedicated “Peaceable Kingdom” to “all my friends in Palestine.” With its celebration of the everyday and the commonplace as holy, there was also a political element to the Allen Ginsberg poem, “Footnote to Howl,” which she read after the opening the set with “Dancing Barefoot.”
After the Ginsburg poem, the set continued with “Ghost Dance.” “In My Blakean Year” was followed by the first of several covers, the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night).” Smith made tribute to her late friend Tom Verlaine, who came up with her in the early New York punk scene, with Television’s “Guiding Light.” She described her collaborative tune with Bruce Springsteen — “Because The Night” — as “a little Italian folk song.” For her encore, she sang Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
After the Springsteen tune, Smith left the stage, and the band played a couple of songs with vocals by Smith’s longtime collaborator, guitarist Lenny Kaye. When she came back, they did “Summer Cannibals,” and they finished the set with her distinctive version of “Gloria.”
I’d seen Patti before, at a book event last year. While there were a few songs (and Kaye was with her), it wasn’t the focus of the evening. This was the first time I’ve ever seen her do a full set with a band, and it was stunning. It struck me, as she was singing, just how influential she’s been, and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders came to mind in particular, though she has many other spiritual children. While she’s important as a figure in the history of music, you should see Patti Smith because she still rocks. She’s still passionate, still fiery, still a dynamite live performer. She’s all heart, and sometimes she stumbled with a lyric before catching herself, but it’s all part of being so deeply emotionally engaged with her material. If you haven’t seen Patti do her thing, you should make a point of it, because you’re guaranteed to get a great show.
Here are some photos of Patti Smith performing at The Anthem on Sept. 16, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.