Patti Smith, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Better without trad backing, but her rambling lets her down
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The Independent Culture

You could bet your bottom dollar this was not how George W Bush would want to spend the anniversary of 9/11. One of his most outspoken critics was out to celebrate an artist obsessed with S&M.

To begin, Patti Smith emerged in her trademark baggy, androgynous suit. She simply recited numbers of the dead on and since that day five years ago. Then she crumpled up her list as she mentioned the "inestimables", the broken families and shattered lives.

Tonight, though, was about one person's actual life. When Smith and guitar maestro Kevin Shields first came together, at last year's Meltdown Festival, which the punk icon curated, the event was overshadowed; 2005 was about her performance of classic album Horses, while now was the perfect time to improvise around The Coral Sea, Smith's prose elegy to her friend and sometime lover Robert Maplethorpe. The photographer would have been 60 this year, an anniversary also celebrated by exhibitions in London and Edinburgh.

Smith, though, was in the midst of her own revitalised period, since she returned to performance in the mid-90s having raised her children. So the first part of the evening focused on the artist's supposedly quieter material. She is still best known here for "Because The Night", so here was a chance to reprise lesser-known numbers and preview new ones.

Hardest hitting was "Qana", mourning the dead children of Lebanon. It was an angry reminder of the footage of bodies in that bombed out village. "Without Chains" brought to life Murat Kurnaz, the German resident held for four years in Guantanamo Bay.

The cellist Giovanni Solima added expressive tones beside bass player and pianist Tony Shanaban. Jason Pierce, Spiritualized's front man, was the surprise package who came out to back up Smith's rusty guitar playing. The artist's most effective instrument was her voice, even more powerful without her usual trad rock backing. All that let her down was the rambling, repetitive introductions that although sweetly personal made her appear like an absent-minded professor.

Perhaps Smith was put off by the stern "recording in progress" sign that reminded us this night was to be taped for posterity. And she was meant to enjoy improvisation.

Nothing phased a youthful Shields, a figure with almost as much mystique as Smith, given his reclusive nature. Sat on a sofa under a chintzy standard lamp, his light action conjured ebbs and flows that mirrored her maritime imagery. A boat journey told the story of Maplethorpe's own life, though only hit home when Smith got visceral and described the photographer vomiting his own flesh. It was Dylan Thomas's "rage against the dying of the light" for the Aids generation.

Smith's deep voice was powerful enough to match the guitarist's increasingly overwhelming slabs of noise, though her random clarinet interludes were embarrassing. Shields had his own longeurs over the 55-minute performance, though when Smith lay down on a sofa beside his, she was as spent as the rest of us.

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