Patti Smith's passion is the real deal
By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff
I guess it was in the middle of "Dancing Barefoot" when the thought struck: You can take your Mariahs, your Whitneys, and your Celines. Patti Smith, whose vocal range is far more limited, is the real deal, what rock 'n' roll should be about. There is just so much emotion, passion, and poetry in her act, it's breathtaking. If Bob Dylan has a distaff sibling, it's Smith.
Making little forays into the world of performance to support her new peace and noise album, Smith played to about half a house at Avalon Wednesday night. That's the criminal part - she's riding no hit record, and people's memories are short. What Smith and her band, helmed as always by guitarist Lenny Kaye, do is create a magical world onstage. There's blues, country, folk, punk rock, garage rock, all of it melded together. Smith's music tends to come at you in waves, some gentle, some tidal.
Smith was there at the beginning of punk rock. In 1979, she waved goodbye to it all, pretty much retiring from music to raise a family. She's weathered a lot - the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and others close to her. In the past couple of years, Smith has taken a series of gradual steps back to the stage. She's played small acoustic shows, benefits. She toured with Dylan. The Avalon date was the second show of her current tour.
The two-hour show, which included a mid-set break, was a mix of old and new. She plugged the new album - "I have to shlep around, do my own advertising; they have to take care of Puff Daddy" - and she mourned the age of baseball's innocence. (No joke - she conjured up an era of loyalty long gone.) As she closed the first half of her set, she advised those in the crowd to "try and not drink so much alcohol" and recommended water. (The bartenders must love her.)
Smith and her band - Kaye, drummer J.D. Daugherty, guitarist Oliver Ray, bassist Tony Shanahan - moved in numerous directions. There was a touch of Hank Williams country; there was a ferocious Bo Diddley stomp of "Who Do You Love." Her elegy to Kurt Cobain, "About a Boy," evolved into the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," and it was a delight. Perhaps one of the things that make Smith's music so special is that she's an A-level lyricist who understands that getting lost in, or transported by, the music is what matters. When she and her guys sang the redemptive refrain "We shall live again," it was thoroughly convincing. At the close, she launched into "People Have the Power," a power-of-positive-thinking song that once made me wince. Not anymore. Smith's a believer. She can make you believe. It wasn't perfect. "Because the Night," "Land," and "Gloria" were notable omissions. But this was a warm and generous set. It was a concert as a journey, an opportunity to discover truths, new, old, and timeless.
Copyright © Globe Newspaper Company 1997