Hamer Hall, Melbourne; Vic.
Sunday, April 16
It was billed as Patti Smith’s last tour of Australia and it was also a run-through of the classic album, Horses. So expectations were high. It was palpable, the theatre filling up in the half-hour ahead of show-time, a reverence, and then some waiting…
Smith and her band, long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye as well as the drummer from the Horses record, Jay Dee Daugherty, along with guitarist/bassist Andy York and piano player/bassist Tony Shanahan, took to the stage with that killer opening line ready for Smith to spit, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine”. We’re there on Easter Sunday. And this hits. And then the piano chords that sit beneath it, a little bit of blues and rockabilly in the guitar lick – and we’re off…
The song that eventually becomes Van Morrison’s Gloria, after framing Smith’s poem, In Excelsis Deo, is a perfect set-opener. We’re into the second-hand nostalgia and rickety bounce of Redondo Beach almost too soon, and then when Birdland ascends to its peak the real weight of the album and this album-celebrating show arrives. People leave their seats and rush to the front as Birdland morphs into Free Money. By the end of the start of that song the entire theatre is on its feet.
Patti Smith calls out that it’s the end of Side One of Horses and the feel-good vibe of Kimberly seems to hit harder than it ever did on the album. Is this because we’re almost half-way through/half-way over? At any rate a suited and booted Smith continues to prowl the stage with her dance moves, shaking lyrics and near-sermons from the cuffs, stomping about and living inside the joy of the dream-movements she shaped into songs. These tunes, 45 years old, punk classics, so transcendent, both then and now, are little moments of elation. One follows another…
Lenny Kaye snaps out most of the key guitar lines, occasionally he swaps with York to thrum the bass, Daugherty snaps out those drum fills with all of the vitality of the record, as if old-hat, something he does every night, every week, every month. And Shanahan is a driving force whether behind the keys or filling in the bass, his backing vocals a crucial component.
This band could turn on a dime, this band knows this music inside out, this band also knows that Patti is the star. They simmer below/beneath, they never even get close to stealing thunder, their aim is to support Patti; she joyously celebrates her own words and spits out the history, re-framed for the future, her spoken-word asides, whether inside the song or served on the side as banter, are her guitar solos. She’s a virtuoso linguist – whether riffing or reading. From time to time she takes glasses and reads from the page, at other times she channels the spirit and reworks the words or at least the context.
Break It Up, a fever-dream tribute to Jim Morrison, is a surging crowd singalong tonight, and Land, the centerpiece of Horses, near enough to a title track, is a stunning virtuoso piece of performance poetry. Somehow Horses, 45 years on from its release, is as elegiac and prophetic, as celebratory and profound as it was in the punk era. To watch and hear the 70-year-old Smith working out and working through this material is deeply affecting, hugely inspiring. The magic trick is never explained, the magic still there. Maybe – if anything, somehow – more so. The mercurial, memorable work still sleek and shape-shifting, still proud and poetic, still masterful; majestic.
Horses’ closing track, Elegie, is now presented as tribute stack for a range of shout-outs (Bowie, Prince, Winehouse, all of the Ramones, Fred “Sonic” Smith and many, many more) and it’s all the more beautiful and thoughtful as a result; Smith’s voice too – summoning all of the fury, poetic profundity and searing sincerity – seems somehow more suited to serving up Elegie now. It was always correctly placed on the album, but in this performance it’s not just a set-closer, it’s nearly tear-inducing.
Oh, I say that, but I was wiping at my eyes during Birdland and Free Money, again as Land was, well, landing, and in the joy of Kimberly, the emphatic empathy of Break It Up.
There’s barely a chance to think or re-set, Horses ends. And we move straight into Easter’s Privilege (Set Me Free). It’s often a part of the set but it’s hard not to feel like it’s perfectly placed tonight. And then to Dancing Barefoot which takes all of The Rolling Stones’ best swagger and imbues it with a sensuality they were never able (or maybe interested) in channeling. Patti Smith has just played her best album head to toe, but there’s nothing else in her catalogue quite like Dancing Barefoot.
We then get Ghost Dance, Kaye and York both on the acoustic guitars. Then it’s to the rewrite of Free Money that Bruce Springsteen enabled and Smith fully realised, as Because The Night becomes the next biggest singalong after Break It Up.
Smith’s 80s ‘comeback’ anthem, People Have The Power, is next in this magnificent run of encore-performances and then to My Generation.
It was another example of the band knowing its real star and energy is Patti and the role she works in and through – the proto-punk re-boot of this cover of The Who’s seminal stinger was on slow-bleed as Smith continued the chanting she started on People Have The Power. She told the audience it was our time and our turn, she reminded us that it was crucial to remember art and the artists, to protest and to vote and work and aim for change. She changed some of the words, instead of hoping to die before getting old she boasted of her age – “I’m old – and I’m getting older – and I’m gonna live to a hundred-and-fucking-ten!” And then she donned a guitar, proclaimed it her weapon and shot shards of feedback through the song before tearing the strings, individually, from it.
It was exhilarating, it was profound and powerful – it was awesome; almost in the truest sense of the word. It was the best way for the best show to end.
Seeing Patti Smith celebrate Horses was no nostalgia-trip. It was vital and beautiful and I left knowing I was lucky to see this. I left hoping for the best – for the band members, for the audience. I left feeling changed. It won’t last – of course. I’m human, and worn down by making a living and getting through each day. But at that moment and for as long as I can try to hold onto – I felt the spirit, the magic, the meaningful exchange of an artist. It was not just fulfilling. It was uplifting. It was one of the very best concerts I’ve seen and it was about as perfect as you could hope something like this to ever be. And I was deeply moved by the spirit of this woman, this artist, this living legend, working through the material, re-interpreting it, reviving it, not just revisiting it. The spell she cast was electric. It was everything while it was happening. And I’m holding onto that for as long as I can.
Full Setlist Here