Patti Smith was her harshest critic Monday evening at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Not four songs in, and she promised to return to Pittsburgh for a redo. She explained her body is sensitive to the weather, and the big snow storm was coming. “I feel like I’ve run 26 miles,” she said.
Sure, there was a flubbed lyric during her version of Them’s “Gloria,” the opening number. “Shit,” Smith said, laughing as her band played on. She dived back into the song, not forgetting another lyric for the rest of the night.
The show was back on track, where it remained. She may have felt subpar, but it’s hard to imagine her sounding any more magnificent. Now 70, she recreated every note, wail, and yelp on Horses, her vocals unwavering as she and her band tore through the album’s eight tracks.
Where Poetry and Rock Intersect
Smith has been celebrating the legacy of Horses, her 1975 debut, by performing the album in its entirety. If The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band elevated rock ‘n’ roll from teen entertainment to art, then Horses took rock to graduate school abroad, fusing together power chords and allusions to the French poet Rimbaud.
Her three albums after Horses were credited to The Patti Smith Group, so let’s not forget Monday night’s billing: Patti Smith and Her Band. Two members, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, appeared on Horses. They sounded as fresh in 2017 as they did in 1975.
Keyboardist Tony Shanahan, meanwhile, took us to the beach—“Redondo Beach”—on the set’s second song. As if channeling a boardwalk performer, he infused his organ-like part with reggae. Next came “Birdland,” in which the song’s young protagonist sacrifices his eyes to a flock of birds to be with his late father. Kaye’s avian riffs were front and center.
After “Birdland,” Smith explained that the weather was affecting her. The audience cheered its encouragement as the stage lights went red, and the band launched into “Free Money.” Daugherty played drums as fast as he did when he was in his 20s.
Anchoring the set was Smith’s son, Jackson, who played bass. His best bass line was on “Kimberly,” a song about another family member, Patti Smith’s sister.
Smith often paused between songs to catch her breath, treating the audience to anecdotes. She talked about visiting Andy Warhol’s grave earlier that day. “Andy didn’t like me much,” she said. At least in the ’60s and ’70s, she clarified, adding that he was happy to see her today.
Before singing “Break It Up,” she explained the song was about a dream that she had of Jim Morrison. In the dream, she visited a marble, winged statue of him. She yelled, “Break it up,” and he broke through, flying away.
On the penultimate track, “Land,” a standout on both the album and live set, Smith reinterpreted “Land of a Thousand Dances” into an epic suffused with her poetry. She and her band ended the song by circling back to “Gloria,” a move which got the audience, composed of punks young and old, out of its chairs and toward the stage.
The last song was “Elegie.” She and Allen Lanier, of Blue Öyster Cult, wrote it about Jimi Hendrix. During the performance, she namechecked others who are gone: Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer, the Ramones, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Prince.
Also named was Robert Mapplethorpe, the late photographer who shot the iconic, gender-bending photo of Smith that appears on Horses. The image was projected onto the concert backdrop as the band performed the album. Most poignantly, though, Smith named Fred “Sonic” Smith, her late husband and Jackson Smith’s father. “Sonic” was a member of the seminal Detroit band MC5.
Diverse Covers, More Hits
After performing “Elegie,” Patti Smith exited. The band covered “My Little Red Book,” a song popularized by the L.A. band Love, with Kaye on vocals. Shanahan, now on bass, then sang “7 and 7 Is,” also by Love, while Jackson Smith played guitar too.
Patti Smith returned to sing some more hits, starting with “Pissing in a River.” She kicked off her boots and pulled off her socks for a barefoot rendition of “Because the Night,” a song co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Her part of the song was about her late husband. The crowd was also treated to a brief, a cappella rendition of “The Trees They Do Grow High” after Smith recounted the time that she met Joan Baez in Italy.
Last was “People Have the Power.” As she sang “the people have the power to redeem the work of fools,” she smiled knowingly. The crowd caught her drift; fists were raised.
Following an encore break, she and her band returned to cover The Who’s “My Generation.” She played guitar for this one, coaxing feedback from an amp with the LGBTQ pride flag draped over her.
Donald Trump might be from her generation, she said, but so was she. If the nukes fly, no doubt she will be at the top of the cinders: wild-eyed, wielding a guitar, and ready to take on whatever evil might still be left in this world.
At the show’s end, Patti Smith shook hands with concert-goers and gave a plucked guitar string and a handful of picks to a boy. She thanked the crowd for giving her strength.
“I had a great time,” she said before exiting. So did her audience. Although a redo is by all means unnecessary, the people there that night certainly wouldn’t mind seeing her again.
Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves going to concerts.