OK. The stakes were high with this one. The best gig I can remember going to, ever, was New York poet-turned-singer Patti Smith about five years ago at The Junction in Cambridge, a show that was arranged at short notice and I believe wasn’t even sold out. I didn’t have particularly high expectations and went largely out of curiosity and a sense of obligation to my eighteen-year-old self, who had for a time been obsessed with Smith’s Horses album to the point of exclusion of all other music, but the sixty year old woman on stage knocked it clean out of the park, singing better than she did in her youth with a highly accomplished and sympathetic rock’n’roll band matching her every inch of the way. It was powerful, it was intimate, it was funny, it was inspiring and Gloria sounded even more wonderful than it does on the album. Most rock veterans are content to churn out the oldies for a paycheck but Smith sang these songs and made her case for people to stand up and let their voices be heard with the zeal of a missionary, tempered with a self-awareness and humour that neutralised any potential cringe factor. It was, and I don’t like to throw this kind of vernacular about lightly, awesome.
So when this gig at the considerably larger, and notably non-intimate, Corn Exchange was announced, I couldn’t help feeling a bit apprehensive. Surely it was going to be a tall order for Smith to establish the same connection with the audience in this barn-like environment? And the acoustics for loud rock music are generally terrible in there. Was the cherished memory of that Junction gig going to be irreparably tarnished? Well…no: within about ten seconds of the singer and her band coming on stage and launching into a pristine, beautifully played and perfectly-mixed version of Dancing Barefoot it was clear that everything was going to be all right. I’ve got a kind of tendency to gush on this blog that I know I’ve gotta keep an eye on but oh my – this was (again) one special gig.
The band had the same line-up as five years ago, with stalwarts Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty on guitar and drums respectively, Smith’s son Jackson on second guitar and Tony Shanahan on bass and occasional keyboard, and I don’t know what they and their road crew know that other bands don’t but they sounded fantastic: always clear and crisp even during the over-driven and rowdy climactic sections and suitably sensitive and subtle without ever sounding fussy in the quiet bits. Smith’s vocals are as strong as they’ve ever been and you can hear every word without having to strain. This is how it should be, and how it hardly ever is. Which is doubly good, because it would be a monumental pity if a set-list this impressive was fouled up by a dodgy mix. Five years ago, Smith was promoting (although you can’t imagine that this defiantly non-corporate artist has much truck with concepts like promotion) her covers album Twelve, so we got to hear a fair few interpretations of alternative rock classics – this time, she’s got Banga, an album of original material, out and the only covers aired are those that make up Lenny Kaye’s commemoration medley for the 40th anniversary of the release of his garage-band compilation Nuggets (I picked out The Heartbreakers’ Born To Lose and Pushin’ Too Hard by The Seeds, amongst others). The rest of the set is a heady, but well-selected, forage through Smith’s back catalogue, with some of the poppier tunes from the new record thrown in. Early on I get my Horses fix attended to with a boppy Redondo Beach and Free Money, which boasts an extended piano intro, and fans of the early albums will have been satisfied by hearing Pissing In A River, Ghost Dance and bona fide hit single Because The Night. The new songs slot right in – April Fool may be the most commercial thing she’s ever written, and the Amy Winehouse tribute This Is The Girl is the latest evidence of Smith’s fascination with prematurely deceased rock stars.
All this professionalism and crowd-pleasing aside, what really lifts the gig is Smith’s engagement with the audience and her obvious delight in and passion for what she’s doing. Between songs she talks to the crowd about her awe at being in such a venerated seat of learning, and how she quite fancies living the life of a student or teacher at the University, and she’s happy to leave us guessing as to how serious she’s being. It feels like a real conversation rather than a set piece of stage banter. She recommends that we seek out Wittgenstein’s grave* and responds to audience members who shout out comments, although from where I was sitting it wasn’t always possible to make total sense of the exchanges. Later she uses the plight of the unjustly imprisoned Russian protest group Pussy Riot to urge us not to lapse into defeatism and accept the arbitrary and unfair rule of corrupt governments and corporations (I completely agree, but despite the deafening roar of approval these sentiments inspire I’m not sure the average Cambridge concert-goer is sufficiently oppressed yet to start a revolution). Throughout the show she displays the energy level of someone a third of her age, skipping nimbly around, dropping down into the crowd and going walkabout during the instrumental breaks, and ripping the strings off her guitar with her bare hands at the end of the evening. The audience feeds on the energy right from the start and are applauding riotously only a few songs in – by the end of the encore she gets a standing ovation and a warehouse sized tsunami of cheering. A brilliant gig from a veteran anti-establishment icon who still means it and can deliver the goods as potently as she ever could. And she only went and did Gloria again. It really doesn’t get any better.
* She mentioned this last time too, and I did go and have a look. The nice man who runs stone-carving classes at the church pointed out the grave, but was aghast and apologetic at the sight of six pork pies piled up on top of it. He swiftly re-arranged them so that they were in their proper places at the corners and halfway down the sides and expressed relief. Apparently Wittgenstein was keen on them, and this is a recognised tribute to this fact.