“I’m sorry that I’m wearing dark glasses,” explains Patti Smith, as the final notes of “Free Money” fade out. “I’m not trying to be cool. It’s just the sun. The sun is not yellow… it’s chicken!” It is shortly after 7pm and Patti Smith and her band are in the middle of playing their Horses album in full. Even at this relatuvely late hour, the thermometer is nudging 70 degrees and the sky is a perfect blue. But admittedly, a sun-lit park in East London seems an incongruous setting for Horses. After all, the album is explicitly a New York record, written in the Chelsea Hotel and Smith’s own MacDougal Street apartment then finessed at several of the city’s storied venues, from St Mark’s Church to CBGBs. Yet here we find Smith and her band celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut album with a tour of the European festival circuit.
The question of how to present this characteristically New York album in the outdoor spaces of Europe – and in sequence – seem not to have overly concerned Smith and her co-conspirators much. By coincidence, two nights before this London show, there’s an Old Grey Whistle Test compilation on television that includes footage of Smith and her band performing “Horses” from May, 1976. The odd grey hair aside, it’s revealing to see how little they’ve changed: Lenny Kaye, Smith’s long-serving guitarist, still favours a white shirt and black waistcoat outfit while Smith’s sunglasses appear to be an ever-present accessory (although these days, she admits, they’re fitted with prescription lenses). But critically the spirited, wide-ranging qualities of the material – not to mention its pathos and wit – are reassuringly as strong as ever, even in this setting. After opening with a rousing version of “Gloria” and the languid skank of “Redondo Beach”, “Birdland” suggests a more challenging proposition for a potentially restless festival crowd. A nine-minute excursion into incantatory poetry over improvised noise, it is closer to performance art than rock gig; but commendably, the audience are fully engaged. Even the occasionally lengthy gaps between songs – when Smith sips from a mug of tea or talks briefly to a member of the road – are met with tolerance rather than impatience. Smith herself is unfailingly polite. After “Free Money”, she helpfully explains that they’re reached the end of Side 1; later, after she botches the introduction to “Break it Up”, claiming “I never do anything perfect. I only fuck up perfect”, she is cheered enthusiastically.
The second side of Horses is dominated by the “Land…” sequence, which provides the transformative highlight of tonight’s set. The heavy lifting falls initially to Smith’s band: especially, Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty – the two veterans of the Horses album sessions – who are there to interpret the song’s complex, rhythmic intensity. Smith’s delivery, meanwhile, alternates between witchy invocations and the fire and brimstone shrieks of a tent revival preacher. The Horses set concludes with “Elegie” – “Written 40 years ago when I was toddler”: her tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Many more friends, she says, have died since and she encourages the audience to shout the names of lost loved ones while the song plays – she names Joe Strummer, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone and Sid Vicious, her brother Todd Pollard Smith, husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, band mate Richard Sohl, Lou Reed and John Nash.
Such a gesture – warm, inclusive – highlights the hippie mother aspect of Smith’s personality, as does her request that the audience sing “Happy birthday” to bassist Tony Shanahan. But there are serious moments, too. After dedicating “Dancing Barefoot” to Polly Harvey and a rousing “Because The Night”, she reaches a peak with “People Have The Power”, exclaiming: “We are free people and we want the world and we want it now!” Finally, Smith and her band leave the stage after an explosive version of “My Generation”: Kaye’s guitar lines spitting and arcing into the darkening evening sky.
Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner
2 Redondo Beach
4 Free Money
6 Break It Up
7 Land: Horses / Land Of A Thousand Dances / La Mer(de) / Gloria
9 Dancing Barefoot
10 Pumping (My Heart)
11 Because The Night
12 People Have The Power
13 My Generation