"Welcome to Rimbaud's celebration, where we salute with great love and irreverence one of the greatest poems ever in the history of the universe." And with that, Patti Smith and her band kicked off the annual Rock'n'Rimbaud at London's legendary Shepherd's Bush Empire, one of the finest venues I've ever seen a show in. The crowd started slow, but grew in size into what must have been near capacity (how a Patti Smith show can not sell out is beyond me) by the start time.
I was expecting Kimberly to kick off the set, thinking this was the Rock'n'Rimbaud tour and not realizing this was a special, one-off birthday concert. So things were gonna be a lot different than all the setlist-watching I'd done. She kicked it off with Ask the Angels, the first track on 76's Radio Ethiopia, a song I'd never heard but was conventional enough to quickly catch on. The energy from the get-go was enormous, Patti rocking out in her own way by the mic stand, dancing and occasionally ripping the mic from the stand (knocking it over more often than not in the process) and coming closer to the audience. Between songs she would generally just walk around smiling and waving, which with anyone else would seem incredibly lame, but for some reason with Patti it still seemed punk rock. The fact as she's doing this (as well as during songs) she periodically spits on the stage helps.
The slow organ intro led into the first of many songs off Easter, Privilege (Set Me Free), which built to an even higher height than it does on record, thanks in large part to Lenny Kaye's echo vocals and Jay Dee Daugherty's crashing drums during the recitation of the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd" being especially appropriate given the venue). "Oh I'm so young, so goddamn young" takes on a whole other meaning with Patti in middle-age, less a statement of fact and more a declaration, a call to arms, to not backing down.
Patti's dissonant clarinet work (shows my newbie-ness: I didn't even know she played the clarinet at all) led into the slow guitar strumming of the first song off of this year's cover album Twelve, Hendrix's Are You Experienced? It was one of my least favorite on the album, but was a whole different beast live. The fact that it was over three times as long as the album version helped, with a psychedelic meltdown courtesy of Lenny and the clarinet. Halfway through some subtle cymbal hits turned the song into a spoken-word recital of a poem, by Rimbaud I assume. Back into five more minutes of the song, now at a near deafening volume with Daugherty's drum rolls shooting it along.
The first of many anti-corporation speeches about our tribe rising again as the "mass minority" led into the "Tayi, taye"s of Ghost Dance. The slow, repeated "We shall live again" of the chorus inspired the audience, as they sang along quietly moving nothing but their lips. Lyrics alternating between traditional tribal and nü-Catholic combined in a solemn plea for rejuvenated life. I can't say as much about the lyrics to the next one, Dancing Barefoot, though. It was a minor hit in its day, but these sorts of verses seem to be confusion for the sake of confusion: "She is sublimation / She is the essence of thee / She is concentrating on / He, who is chosen by she." Sounds like one of those mental puzzles where you have to figure out who is who's aunt. It was played pretty faithfully to the recorded version from 79's Wave.
We learned a little more about Rimbaud's life before the rhythmic acoustic strumming led into a concert staple, Beneath the Southern Cross. It's the sort of song that hypnotizes you in a way where, when it's over, you don't feel guilty not having paid close attention. She stood still by the mic stand, using a guitar for the first time, seeming to roll each word around in her mouth for a bit before releasing it. While the volume slowly increased over the seven minutes, the structure did not, as she and Lenny faced each other hitting their guitars more and more vigorously while Daugherty took mallets to the bass drums.
Tony Shanahan's striking bass riff provided the backing for a slow monologue about Rimbaud as an intro to Ain't It Strange. The band's backing vocals were full of emotion, but mainly served to provide the bed on which Patti could lay her soaring vocals. She has a reputation for not being able to sing but, nasal though her voice may be, she has a pretty impressive range. The song also provided the vehicle for the first real guitar solo by Jack Petruzelli, on loan from Rufus Wainwright's band.
More Rimbaud biographical information about Season in Hell and his time in Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) and how National Geographic refused to publish his work. "So the next time you write a poem and don't get accepted into some hip poetry journal, you're in good company." At some unspoken cue the band started providing ambient noises as she went into his death and from there, into the noise epic Radio Ethiopia. One apparently either loves it or hates it, but I can't see why it is so divisive. It was certainly focused enough tonight, with even a special addition at the end of her reading Rimbaud's last "poem", a telegram he dictated to his sister asking for passage on a ship. The last lines are "I am in no condition to do what I must do. The first dog on the street could tell you that. Please take my body and place it in a litter on the ship so I can go back to Abyssinia. Please tell me what time I should board." He died shortly after. The ship didn't even exist.
A spiel about seeing Television at CBGB's (where Patti got her start) began the song about guitarist Tom Verlaine, We Three. A straightforward rendition once again showcased Patti's voice, before Jack played one of the most familiar rhythm guitar riffs ever for Gimme Shelter. Though Patti's version is not hugely different than the original, it seems to have even more energy (and thus be more sing-a-long-able) which was capitalized on live as the crowd went wild. Patti turned it from a cry for freedom to a call to arms, screaming her own lines like "Oh, the streets are waiting / Come on people, have your say!"
Patti left the stage to take a much-deserved break while Lenny broke into a cover song off his famous compilation Nuggets (in which he all but coined the term "punk rock") at breakneck speed, The Seeds' Pushin' Too Hard. Thirty seconds later he stopped, due to an out-of-tune guitar - but what's more punk rock than an out of tune guitar? At any rate, he got a new one and tried again. It was loud and frenetic, the Ramones on speed, and the band seemed to be having more fun than they had all night, running around the stage. A couple minutes in Patti danced back on, and stood next to Lenny as he sang, watching. He apparently didn't notice her though, as about thirty seconds later as he's going into the chorus he glances next to him and leaps back with a huge "Yeaow!" (listen for it on the recording). Regaining composure, he leaps back at the mic to finish and Patti joins Jack and Tony on backing vocals.
"This next song has nothing to do with Arthur Rimbaud" was an interesting segue into a story about waiting for her boyfriend, MC5's Fred 'Sonic' Smith to call. Luckily he stood her up, because she took the free time to put words to the tune Bruce Springsteen had sent her, resulting in her biggest hit Because the Night. And when he called seven hours late? "I wasn't mad at all." Very cute. The song, a little too poppy on her album, was appropriately rocking live as the audience sang the "Because the night"s for her. In such a serious poetry-concert, having a little fun was clearly cathartic for the audience.
It didn't last too long though, as Kevin Shields, frontman for My Bloody Valentine, came out to provide some additional ambient noise for an improvisation speech about Rimbaud. At one point a heckler screams out for her to sing, and she hilariously silenced him with "Sing out brother! Don't mind me, I'm just thinking out loud here. Nothing really, just something about some old poet motherfucker." He wasn't heard from again. She alternated between personal description of his life and recitations of his poetry (with some nice clarinet in there as well) for five minutes or so before slowly winding down.
She wound back up again real quickly though, bringing the lights down for the slow acoustic and bass intro to her phenomenal cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the clear highlight of the recent album. It's a little different live (no banjo) but the mellow, clear lyrics recitation to chiming guitar and brushed drums remained the same. One of the most innovative covers of recent years, pulled off brilliantly live by a band in perfect sync. It wound up a little louder than the recorded version though, as Kevin Shields stayed on his electric.
An impromptu speech about the real meaning of the word "pray" formed an unrelated intro to "The boy was in the hallway," an extended spoken-word beginning to one of my favorite songs, the 11-minute long Land. Lenny's choppy guitar slowly came in, getting faster and faster as the audience started clapping along until the rest of the instruments kicked in with "surrounded by...horses, horses, horses". The greatest moment of the show for me came a few line later, when she kicked into the Land of a Thousand Dances part of the song with "Do you know how to pony? Like bony maronie?" An uncomfortable catchy chorus to a song about rape, and more disturbing because of it. The audience, of course screamed along to the reason the song was probably played, "Go Rimbaud! Go Rimbaud!" She got so energetic there that she forgot the words to the next verse, and had to ask Lenny for help. She ended up accidentally repeating the first verse, but that was fine with us as it just extended the song (afterwards: "I just noticed...I did that part twice. I must be in that state of mind where you only remember...nothing"). Another verse later, she improvs a story about seeing an invitation that said "I don't care who wins the fucking rugby match [England was in the World Cup at that moment, possibly explaining the lower attendance. They lost.] It's not about who wins or loses. It's about who has the best fucking party!" From that story she segues into "I look on the window, see the sweet young thing humpin' on the parking meter, leanin' on the parking meter", and the audience explodes as they realize it's Gloria. The band hit a new high of punk-rock energy, tearing through this as if it was still 1975, the audience screaming every line of the chorus at deafening volume. In her most rock star move of the night, she held the mic out to let us sing the "Gloria" only doing the "G-L-O-R-I-A" duties. The last lines, appropriately enough: "Jesus died for somebody's sins...R-I-M-B-A-U-D...Glooooooria!"
After a few minute encore break, with the audience needing the time to catch their collective breath as much as the band, she came back on for the opening line of Babelogue "I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future" before adding some new lines about the need to unite to change the world. Not too much of that though, as she predictably went into "Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore"...Rock'n'Roll Nigger. What could possibly be more punk than a middle-aged white woman screaming about how Jesus was a nigger to a huge crowd? Unfortunately, near the beginning of the song the audience gasped when, running to reach the microphone, Patti tripped over an amp and fell hard. The band almost stopped to go see if she was ok, but she waved them off and slowly got up. They kept playing quietly "I'm alright, and I'm not even fucking embarrassed, cause I've done worst than that. In this life you've got to keep your fucking balance. A small fall from grace happens if you don't want to lose your fucking life, if you don't want the corporate powers to decide how you live. You don't need their shit!" That's right, she turned a near fall into a lengthy speech of pure poetry on not losing your identity to the Man. The band built and built, with the whole moment so perfect you wondered if it had been orchestrated (it hadn't; the fall was big news the next day). She kept going about how, pointing to her elbow, "You gotta get some fucking battle scars!" in a furious anti-war (war, not the War) tirade. A true artist in every sense of the word.
Five or so minutes later, she transitioned perfectly back to the actual song, leading the audience in yelling "Outside of society". A few quick bows, and she was gone.
-As a side note, I waited with a friend for an hour outside the stage door to get an autograph. Though there were only a few of us, she brushed us off, saying she was in a hurry, before getting in a car that didn't go anywhere for 15 minutes though. At the time I was quite peeved, but looking back on it maybe she was more injured than she let on and not in the mood for pictures. Benefit of the doubt."-
If you've made it this far, here's the whole show as mp3's: