review of 1/3/97 concert, 9:30 club, washington, dc

[contributed by Fiona Webster]

She looked regal and happy when she walked onto the stage: She was dressed in a white men's shirt with black tie, black trousers, and boots (no jacket at first). She was cradling with both arms an arrangement of white carnations and other small white flowers against greenery. The woman sitting next to us had sent her the flowers, so she was thrilled. Patti placed the flowers down in front of the drum set, then came up to the mike with Early Work in hand.

"Land" / "Ballad of a Bad Boy" / "Babelfield (Version)" -- While putting on her glasses, she made a crack about "merging into Benjamin Franklin" when she puts them on. Powerful, dramatic readings of all three poems. Before "Babelfield," she said, "This one is kind of long, but it was was a favorite of my brother, Todd." She held the book toward the audience and pointed at the picture of Todd on page 112 right across from the poem. It was a thrill to hear her settle in and read this long poem, its meaning illuminated by the changing tones and rhythms of her voice. I was really struck by the imagery of war and weaponry transforming into music and "art/rat." (Go read the poem again if you don't remember.)

"Farewell Reel" -- Kimberly Smith (introduced by Patti as "from Richmond, Virginia") joined Patti for this one: they were each sitting in chairs with acoustic guitars. There was a bit of a false start (Patti's fault), but then they got it, and Kimberly's accompaniment was interesting, adding harmony and grace notes to the original song.

Kimberly left, and Lenny and Oliver came on stage. Patti asked the crowd, "Were any of you here last night?" Lots of people cheered. She laughed in a wry tone, and said something to the effect of "lucky you -- heh heh." She said, "We were so focused last night, and moved through all the songs so quickly <faint laughter from crowd, because of course they didn't do that at all> that I didn't have <pause> time to introduce the band." But then she didn't introduce (not yet) Oliver and Lenny.

"Babelogue" -- Great version, with Oliver and Lenny accompanying on acoustic guitars. More focused, more intense than the previous night. Lenny and Oliver went offstage afterwards.

"The Jackson Song" -- Tony Shanahan shuffled on stage, and Patti made a crack about him, saying that he's "the slowest man in show business." She gave a "parental advisory" about how Jackson hated the song. Beautiful version, really sweet, and better than the previous night.

Patti left the stage, and Jackson came on.

"Red House Blues" -- Played by Jackson, Tony, and Jay Dee. I couldn't hear whom Jackson was dedicating the song to, but Alan Friedman provided the info that it was for Cesar Diaz, a Hendrix roadie who invented a great amplifier. Jackson's singing was tentative, but his playing was terrific: no wa-wa on this night, just straight, clear blues. He doesn't have his own unique style yet, but for a 14-year-old, he's very good. Someday we're going to be saying about Jackson, "I knew him when..." During the song Patti was down in the crowd on one side of the floor level, quietly greeting a few people.

Brief intermission, then Patti (now wearing her jacket) came back with Lenny, Oliver, Tony, and Jay Dee.

"People Have the Power" (spoken) -- Wow, big contrast to the spoken version of the previous night, and to others I'd heard: fast, intense, delivered with great energy at the crowd.

"Gone Again" / "Dancing Barefoot" -- Already there was a sense that Patti and the band were on a roll, that they were tight and focused and weren't going to mess around between songs. Tony sang harmony on "Dancing Barefoot," and it sounded beautiful. I noticed on both nights that his singing is a big contribution to the band's sound.

"Kimberly" -- Patti quickly introduced the band, and then they barreled into a fine version of this song, even better than the previous night's (which was very good).

"Ghost Dance" -- A slight change of pace with the switch to acoustic, but no loss in momentum. The crowd was into it.

Then Patti wavered a bit at the mike, as if trying to decide whether to say something, mumbling about "I don't know what to say." From the crowd someone yelled, "Say what you feel!" She was smiling as she said back, "If I say what I feel, you're in danger of going on a long meadering meaningless journey." This signaled what we were already sensing -- that this wasn't going to be much of a night for verbal improvisation, that she and the band were on track to blast us out with a smooth sequence of songs.

"Beneath the Southern Cross" -- Three acoustic guitars, including Patti. A much better version than the previous night's, with exquisite phrasing on my favorite lines off Gone Again:

equatorial bliss
who walked through
the callow mist
dressed in scraps
who walked
the curve of the world
whose bone scraped
whose flesh unfurled
who grieves not
anyone gone
to greet lame
the inspired sky
amazed to stumble
where gods get lost
the southern cross

Then Patti went offstage briefly for a "throat break." (She was in very good voice all night.)

"Love of the Common People" -- Lenny introduced this Waylon Jennings song by telling us about his book on Waylon. It's a fun song, and it made for a nice break, because it maintained the rhythm of the show and kept the crowd energy cooking, while allowing us to pause from the intensity of Patti's lyrics. The band was into it, too.

Patti came back and gave several thank-you's -- to the people who'd invited them to play, to the coffee shop across the street (which she recommended twice to the crowd, later on saying, "Coffee shops are important in all times, all places. Shakespeare went to coffee shops, Jackson Pollack went to coffee shops," and so on. She also says, "I would like to thank [local radio station] WHFS," saying that she didn't make it to the interview she was supposed to do with them. "It was either go to WHFS for that interview, or go to the Michelangelo exhibit." <pause, while crowd murmured approval of her choice> "I slept through both." <laughter> "I hope WHFS can forgive me, but actually, I'm more worried about what Michelangelo might think."

"About a Boy" -- Similar to the previous night's, with Patti on Tibetan bowl again, this time more confident about the sound it was making.

"Wicked Messenger" / "Wing" -- She dedicated "Wing" to her daughter Jesse (who was easily visible from my side of the second floor through much of the performance, because she was standing on a little balcony above and to the side of the stage). Someone in the crowd said, "Where is she?" Patti looked slightly taken aback by that question and said, "I know exactly where she is."

"Redondo Beach" -- Now the songs were definitely building, one after the other, in a lovely long crescendo. After this one Patti commented about how soon they would be traveling to Japan, and thanked the crowd for giving her a chance to remember "how terrific I really am." She did indeed seem poised, confident, and polished in her performance, all the way through. She also said, somewhere in here, "Tomorrow is Michael Stipe's birthday, so happy birthday, Michael."

"Summer Cannibals" -- On this night Patti was able to get right down next to the crowd on the lip of the stage, and the energy level was high and rising. "Eat! Eat!" We were going wild on the second floor, leaning way over the railing and dancing ecstatically.

"Dead City" -- "This is a new song written by me and Oliver Ray." Someone asked her when it would be coming out on CD, and she said, "Spring or summer?" "This is for Rosemary, and don't be confused by the initials" (in other words, it wasn't about DC). It's a dark rocker of a song, with lyrics that seem as if they're addressed to some person in a dystopian version of either today or the future: "Is it any wonder" is repeated several times, and then "You don't know who you are/You put your dreams on hold/And you're never going to go far." Then a sequence of short lines each ending in "city" (pronounced with sibilance and anger), ending in "Suck-cess City" -- very creepy-sounding, yet the song is loud, with full band energy -- and then an ending sequence about someone who "longs to be free." (Sorry I couldn't catch more of the lines.) "Dead City" gave me an image of Patti as a dark millennial prophet.

"Wild Leaves" -- Tender, ethereal, perfect, and unlike the previous night, the band was right there with her. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand.

"Radio Ethiopia" -- A version that started with "They walked through the fields..." Similar to the previous night's, but the timing seemed tighter. Afterwards she said, "Thank you. That was the single version."

"Free Money" -- Someone yelled for "Freebird," people laughed, and then someone else yelled, "Free Money." Patti smiled as the band launched into the intro, and the crowd went wild. Very hot! The whole crowd was dancing madly by this time, and it seemed as though the concert had been building in intensity for a long time.

"Not Fade Away" -- Patti on harmonica, on her hands and knees, as on the previous night. A great song to do before they went offstage.

Back for an encore: Patti walked right up to the edge of the stage and looked down at a couple up front, saying, "There's a Patti here tonight." The crowd was shouting back at her enthusiastically by then, as she talked about different Patti's -- Patti Hudson, Patti Page... As it turned out, there was a couple in front -- George and Patti -- for whom Patti Smith had a "Cyrano-like task," to ask Patti, from George, if she would marry him. A ring apparently came out then, because Patti Smith said, "Now don't take that ring right away. You gotta go home and think long and hard about this." Whether it was faked or not, corny or not, the crowd was into it, and we all cheered for the couple as they embraced.

"Because the Night" -- Obviously perfect for the couple up front, and perfect for the crowd, too -- sexy, familiar, beautifully delivered.

Jackson came on stage, and Patti said, "This next song is for my friend, Nancy Henderson, who loves the animal in question." Those us who knew what she meant started clapping wildly.

"Land (Horses) / Gloria" -- Rocking out! Words fail me! A great ending to a powerful show! (In case you haven't noticed, this is not a journalistic or a literary review.)

<pant pant pant> Even just reliving this night, I'm exhausted and thrilled. What a great concert. If the first night was meandering and a bit weird at times, but still charming, the second night was long blast of power. This woman can do no wrong. And she has a hot band, too.

After the show, a bunch of folks were hanging out on the second floor near the entrance to the band's backstage area. It was a great night for meeting people on the babel-list: once I got over my initial shyness, I met quite a few, all of whom seemed to exemplify what I think of as Patti's principle about how to be cool and warm at the same time. I got a chance to chat with Lenny Kaye about Nuggets (he says a new boxed-set version will be coming out soon from Rhino), and with Jackson about Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eventually, I had the good fortune to have a brief conversation with Patti herself. I gave her a small 50th birthday present, she thanked me for doing the website, we exchanged a couple more comments, and then I wished her a good trip to Japan from the babel-list. She was gracious, and looked happy, but it was easy to tell she had given her all in concert -- she was very weary.

And so... that was a perfect ending to a perfect night.

Copyright © Fiona Webster 1997

back to babelogue