“This is a little song from 1974,” declared punk poetess Patti Smith early in her show, just before the waltzing wah-wah guitar and erotic sci-fi of “Distant Fingers” blew any preconceptions that might have existed about this show. “I know,” she consoled, addressing a fresh face in the crowd, “you weren’t even born.” Watching Smith perform, though, it seems both surprising that she was, and alarming that she turned 65 last year.
Touring to promote her 11th studio album Banga, she proves to be a once-in- a-lifetime live act, an artist who strips away the shell of cliché from the old rock’n’roll myth and renders it once more youthful and alive, a weapon charged with tenderness, articulacy and anger.
Her sensitive side was in evidence at first, though, with relatively delicate versions of “Dancing Barefoot” and new track “April Fool”. Despite the strident drums and lacerating guitar of new track “Fuji-San”, it would also reveal itself to be a misty-eyed ode to Mother Nature.
The first sign of the steel that would slowly come to galvanise the set was to be found, oddly enough, in the tender introduction to “Maria”, a slow piano shuffle, which Smith explained was for her late friend, the actress Maria Schneider. “What?” she barked at one rambling interrupter. “ Just thought you maybe had a little something you wanted to talk about?”
The crowd roared. This no-messing attitude would return amid the tooth-gritting suresightedness of “Beneath the Southern Cross” and a fiery medley of garage classics led by her long-time bandleader Lenny Kaye, including The Sonics’ “Night Time Is the Right Time” and The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard”.
This subtle but masterfully controlled building of pace and hardening of tone swept the audience along, through the pin-drop delicacy of “Pissing in a River” to the ramshackle sexuality of “Because the Night” and even the first outing of “Power to the People” (it would reappear later) as an acoustic outro to uneventful ballad “Peaceable Kingdom”.
Where what had gone before had been memorable, the finale was a truly unforgettable torrent of emotion: her breathtaking, irreligious take on Them’s “Gloria”; the new album’s standout title track; and finally a cataclysmic, arguably definitive version of “ Rock N Roll Nigger”, the strongly phrased spoken word defence of Pussy Riot that formed its latter section smacking not of opportunism, but of Smith taking up a cause she was born to fight for.