Patti Smith contains multitudes: artist and muse, poet and interpreter, model and memoirist, rock ’n’ roll messiah and recluse, androgynous punk and wild-haired earth mother, iconoclast and acolyte. No single performance is expansive enough to showcase all of her brilliant facets, but a recent appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House—her first full-on concert in Philadelphia in far too long—did a marvelous job of balancing borrowed songs and her own fiercely original work.
At her best, the 72-year-old is coolly cutting, warmly illuminating and feverishly improvisational, with a band that can be as tight or as loose as she wills it to be. She was all that and more at the Met, joined by original Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, longtime accompanist Tony Shanahan on bass and piano, and son Jackson Smith on guitar (with daughter Jesse Paris Smith sitting in on piano for a few songs late in the show).
Only two songs Smith composed this millennium made the cut. “April Fool” (from 2012’s Banga) opened the set with a touch of coquettishness, but “My Blakean Year” (from 2004’s Trampin’) had just the right weight to it; at that point, four songs in, any vague hopes for the evening or mere goodwill gave way to a realization that this show was special.
Even a blunder was serendipitous. After dedicating “Beneath The Southern Cross” to the late Sam Shepard—her onetime lover, longtime friend and collaborator on the play Cowboy Mouth—Smith got lost in the lyrics and had to start over, but she didn’t mind a bit. And she didn’t care what anyone else made of it. “Sam really loved it when I screwed up,” she recalled, imagining him chuckling and shaking his Stetson.
Two back-to-back songs drawn from 1978’s Easter (“25th Floor” and “Because The Night”) were fiery, tender and frankly sensual. Inspired by Fred Smith, the man for whom she willingly left the public eye for the better part of two decades, they were made all the more powerful by being channeled through the lightning fingers of the Smiths’ son, who looks more than a little like the dad he lost almost 25 years ago.
Smith’s boundless devotion to those who came before was evident in her choice of covers, which included a hard-hitting, goosebump-inducing version of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” a flawless reading of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and a hallucinatory take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Kaye took the lead on the Avengers’ poppy, punky “The American In Me” (which he dedicated to legendary Philly DJ Jerry Blavat) and shared the mic with Shanahan on a mash-up of the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
Smith made no apologies for going so long without playing in the city where she spent some of her most formative years, but she expressed her thrill at singing in the recently resurrected theater where so many opera stars performed more than a century ago, and she acknowledged Philly’s importance in a lot of other ways, from weaving Thomas Paine into the epic “Land” to reminiscing about seeing Motown’s biggest stars in concert at the Airport Drive-In on Independence Day 1963 to claiming she learned everything she needed to know in the three years she attended elementary school here.
Throughout the night, Smith radiated with a holy intensity and a lusty frenzy, daring and demanding the surprisingly rowdy, multigenerational crowd to get up and move in a stately venue that was neither designed for dancing nor prepared for intense confrontations between aggressive security guards and fans determined to abandon their seats and rush the stage.
When one middle-aged fellow bellowed, “Patti, they won’t let us dance,” she mocked his whining, attempted to broker a truce and contrasted the plight of the restrained audience member with that of families embarking on a difficult journey to the United States. But if the great sage left us with any words of wisdom that will stand the test of time, it’s this: “You want to dance? Then fucking dance!”
—M.J. FIne; photos by Chris Sikich