review of 1/21/97 concert in sydney in the australian

["Patti Smith -- Enmore Theatre, Sydney," by Richard Jinman, The Australian, Friday 24 January 1997.]

It begins with "Piss Factory," the Bukowski-on-roids poem about the ultimate dead-end job. Smith is all vagrant mystery and shamanic power. She prowls on stage, spitting on it to stake her claim. Her fist begins to shake as the cadence builds and the anger hardens into a resolution: escape the factory, move to New York City and “be somebody ... be somebody...” And just when the climax of this furious stream-of-consciousness appears to have been reached, the guitars of Lenny Kaye and new-boy Oliver Ray tear in behind her.

The new incarnation of the Patti Smith Group simply blow away the years, ushering in something elemental, something true.

Perhaps it’s because she disappeared for 16 years or maybe it’s because she was never fixed in the headlights of a single moment, like, say, the Sex Pistols, that Smith seems secure from any taint of nostalgia. Old songs such as the reggae-soaked "Redondo Beach" and the crowd-pleasing "Because the Night" (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) have the thrill of half-remembered familiarity, but her new material is their equal. Inventive and defiantly strong.

Then there’s that voice. A crazed vibrato with a scary snarl, it’s truly one of the great rock instruments. Combined with flights of lyrical invention -- “I feel like some displaced Joan of Arc” -- and punctuated by darting hand gestures, it stamps everything from the blistering power of "Rock N Roll Nigger" to the mournful tenderness of "About a Boy" with raw emotion. Smith’s refusal to pander to nostalgia or the member of her audience who “just wanted to dance” are integral to her success. “So dance,” she growls to the offending patron. “Or sit on your fat arse. Do whatever you want.”

I could have lived without Lenny Kaye’s solo spot -- a cheerful garage version of Nicky Thomas’s 1970 hit "Love of the Common People." As a front man, Kaye makes a great side man. Yet drummer Jaye Dee Daugherty and bass player Tony Shanahan shine with introduced musicianship and rhythmic invention without compromising or complicating the simple integrity of Smith’s vision.

While the full-bore thunder of her version of "Not Fade Away" is devastating and the call-to-arms "People Have the Power" -- dedicated to the strikers in Korea -- has an anthemic quality subdued by the recording, it’s the quieter moments that leave the deepest impressions.

The band strap on acoustic guitars for "Gone Again," the gentle homage to Smith’s late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. On this and other new songs such as "About a Boy" and "Beneath the Southern Cross," her voice stretches out to reveal the colours and inflections bred of loss and experience.

It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff; by turns heartbreaking and fundamentally life-affirming.

Welcome back, Patti, we missed you without even knowing it.

Copyright © Richard Jinman 1997

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