Patti Smith: Spit, Grit, and Beauty

It’s daunting to write a review of an iconic musician and borderline paralyzing when that performer is Patti Smith.  Along with being one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the past 40 years, she’s also a National Book Award winner and punk’s unofficial poet laureate.  At 72, Smith is as vibrant a performer as ever. Only now her signature spit wads land on the stages of gilded theaters like The Bushnell in Hartford, CT instead of the beer soaked floors of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.  Currently on a swing of limited dates in the northeast before returning to Europe this summer, Patti Smith along with long time band members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty and relative newcomers Tony Shanahan and Jackson Smith enthralled fans with their mix of covers and original songs.  The audience reflected her incredible longevity and broad appeal from Baby Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials alike.

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Most bands save cover songs for their encores but Patti Smith is anything but your average band.  Following the opening track of “April Fool” from 2012’s Banga, Patti and company launched into an inspiring version of Jimi Hendrix’s title track from 1967’s Are You Experienced?.  During an instrumental interlude taken from another Hendrix classic, “Third Stone From the Sun”, Patti moved out to the front of the stage, propped her black leather boot on the stage monitor and hung her head thus allowing her long silver hair to drape over her face while gently nodding her head to the beat.  It was vintage Smith that was just one instance in a night of simple but captivating moments that had the crowd on the edges of their seats and in the isles dancing as if under a trance.

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The theme of alternating originals in with homages to other artist defined the evening.  Some classic Patti Smith Group tunes included “Dancing Barefoot”, “Ghost Dance”, “Because the Night”, “Pissing A River”, and “25th Floor”.  Along with the Hendrix cover Smith and band covered a wide range of artists from The Rolling Stones with “I’m Free” to Midnight Oil’s protest song and hit single “Beds Are Burning”.  Other notable covers included Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”, “Gloria” by Irish garage rockers Them, and Lenny Kaye singing “The American in Me” by San Francisco punk rockers The Avengers.

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Following protocol the encore featured a heart melting cover of Elvis’ classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and a final call for action in the form of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”. With what was either beads of sweat, or tears of joy, or both, streaming down the faces of exuberant fans, they filed out with the chorus of:

People have the power
People have the power
People have the power
People have the power

in their heads with some still singing the refrain aloud among the enthusiastic chatter and crowd noise.  Many I believe, like me, were silent in reflection of what they had just witnessed. A friend at the show turned to me during “Ghost Dance” so moved to posit, “this may be a once in a lifetime experience.”  I hope not, but if it proves to be, I sure am glad I got to experience it even just this once.

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