Before she became the punk firebrand who influenced U2, REM and The Waterboys, Patti Smith was already performing tributes to Arthur Rimbaud to honour the French poète maudit on his birthday and has continued to do so.
As she tells us, little did she imagine she would get the chance to perform a rock'*'Rimbaud concert in London, 35 years after the first one in New York. She opens with the visceral "Ask the Angels" and "Privilege (Set Me Free)" and plays a floating clarinet throughout "Are You Experienced?", the Jimi Hendrix composition that opens Twelve, her current album of covers.
Smith is one of the few artists who can convincingly pull off a set of covers. She totally inhabits the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter". Lenny Kaye can't help but inject humour by holding the bass upright like Bill Wyman used to.
Later, Kaye performs a mean version of The Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard". Smith and her band easily recreate the majestic beauty of "Dancing Barefoot" and "Because the Night", Smith's sole major hit set to Bruce Springsteen's music.
Smith ad libs her way through the hypnotic "Beneath the Southern Cross" and charts Rimbaud's tragic destiny during "Abyssinia" and the title track from Radio Ethiopia, her second album. She is genuinely engaged with the 19th-century poet who helped shape her interest in poetry and is keen to share her passion with the audience.
Smith's concerts are a gathering of the tribes, and the messianic counterculture figure makes telling points about corporate greed and the need for people to come together and have their say. "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the grunge anthem performed here with her friend Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine on extra-trebly electric guitar, regains much of the original's potency, and takes on a new dimension when the singer goes into a trance-like extemporisation.
The glorious "Horses/ Land of a Thousand Dances/Gloria" concluding medley proves that, 32 years on from the release of her iconic Horses debut, Smith remains an incendiary performer steeped in rock's rich and subversive tradition while managing to sidestep the clichés that everybody else seems to fall back on.
Patti Smith plays the Junction, Cambridge, tonight (01223 511 511)