Patti Smith & Tony Shanahan: An Evening of Words and Music (Live at the Alban Arena, 10 August 2013)

Patti Smith has aged gracefully. Gone are the hard, sulphuric edges for which she is renowned; retained are the sensitivity and the powerful voice. She wails through ‘Pissing in a River’ with no lack of intensity, and warbles through ‘Redondo Beach’ with a smile that is both calming and vaguely unsettling.

Patti Smiths
Calming… and vaguely unsettling.

This oxymoronic description fits much of Smith’s work well. The incandescent Horses has its oases, but the refreshment provided by these oases is musical rather than lyrical, and conditional at best. Songs such as ‘Elegie’ and ‘Birdland’ (whose combined length is 13 minutes) offer only fleeting respite from the onslaught of beasts such as ‘Gloria’ and ‘Land’, and the sprightly ‘Redondo Beach’ is about a suicide.

Still, she charms the audience. The gig is totally unplugged, with Tony Shanahan accompanying her on acoustic guitar, backing vocals, and piano. Some of his vocalisations are wonderful, and overall his playing is heartfelt, but he’s no Lenny Kaye. His main function, which he fulfils just fine, is to provide simpatico accompaniment.

Smith’s most surprising, effective coup is to really emphasise the roots and the skeletons of the songs she performs. The whole set sounds like a bona fide folk gig; Smith dresses like Annie Hall, strumming her guitar rhythmically while Shanahan picks out the melody lines. Her cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ sounds like a folk protest. I felt this cover was an odd choice for Smith. “Why?” I asked my companion, baffled. “Why not?” he replied. Fair enough.

The gig features a fair few covers, all of whose authors are honoured. On the studio version of ‘Because the Night’, she stamps her fiery, defiant personality all over it. Live with Shanahan, there’s no mistaking Springsteen’s penmanship: the stop-start intensity, the waves of emotion. The dynamics are all Springsteen. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) Her cover of Neil Young’s ‘It’s A Dream’, with Shanahan on piano, could have been on After the Gold Rush; it betters the original. ‘Summertime Blues’ sounds like Buddy Holly covering the Who. Smith’s strangest cover, though, is one in which she almost does John Lennon proud. In theory, Patti Smith singing ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ is an incredibly moving, powerful experience. Here, she inexplicably and somewhat patronisingly dedicates the song to Bonnie Prince Georgie, and her forgetting of the lyrics in this particular instance is neither funny nor charming. Still, she sings with heart, and Shanahan’s sliding, supple performance is beautiful.

Upon seeing Patti Smith, many in the '70s mistook her for John Lennon.
In the ’70s, many people actually mistook Patti for John Lennon.

Beautiful is an adjective not instinctively synonymous with Smith. Usually her songs are beautiful in an ugly sort of way, or perhaps the other way around. Yet the gig as a whole shimmers. Her song for Jerry Garcia magically captures the transcendental cadences unique to Grateful Dead, and ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ is even more supernal live than its studio incarnation, from 1996’s Gone Again.

It is “an evening of words and music”, but the music is stronger than the “words”, the latter being a handful of poems and readings from Just Kids. Some of the anecdotes (including one about Allen Ginsberg mistaking her for a man) are funny and sweet, but one poem in particular – an homage to Amy Winehouse – is ill-judged and cringe-inducing. Fortunately, she keeps the “words” to a minority. The real poetry is in the music.

There are dips in quality, but the gig in toto proves that Patti Smith’s still got it. Somehow she manages to be earthy and ethereal simultaneously, and the gig’s high-points – ‘Pissing in a River’, ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, ‘Banga’ – are truly magical. We can live in hope that someday, she will shear off the woollier bits, and deliver one hell of a concert.

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