Patti Smith, Cambridge Corn Exchange, September 10th 2012

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.

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27 responses to “Patti Smith, Cambridge Corn Exchange, September 10th 2012

  1. Nice one Ben. I’d never seen her live before, and although there’s always a reason artists like this achieve the status they do, you can never be sure they’ll continue to have the same magic. Patti Smith does.

  2. Thanks Chris. She’s a total one-off, I think. Normally it’s just embarrassing when you see older musicians prancing about throwing rockstar shapes and putting their feet on the monitors but her attitude is so inclusive that she gets away with it. And she’s still releasing high quality new material, which is also very unusual for someone of her vintage.

  3. Great write up Thanks!. I was there and still trying to remember the set list, the night went too quick. My first Patti gig ever! I got Horses in late 70’s and at 16 it went over my head. at 49 just got into Patti, what a woman what a great 1st gig. Was at the front and got a plectrum, a broken string and held her hand. Legend!

  4. Wow! What great souvenirs! I haven’t managed to track down or reconstruct the set list yet, but I’ll try to post it up here if I get it. I’m not that familiar with her 90s albums but I recognised Beyond The Southern Cross. It all sounded great whatever.

  5. Ben: you’ve summed up the experience perfectly in your review. Did you mention she played for 3 hours! Not for a moment did it feel like another gig she was notching off.

  6. Thanks Nicola! Think it was more like two hours…but I’d have stayed for a third gladly!

    • Phew! I was beginning to think that she’d come back on for an hour after I’d left! (Then we might have got Frederick, which I was so hoping for; ah well)…

    • I’ve come back to point out my mistake (PS played for 2 hours)… Just proves my point that your reviews are always spot on and I should stick to what I’m best at (whatever that is).
      I’ve keep my concert ticket and printed off your review for my scrapbook so I can relive the memory. We didn’t do the mosh pit after too many bad experiences (I blame The Cult for my tinnitus). But we should have waited to see if we could meet her after the gig?!? If ever there was an icon who won’t have minded it’s her. Hey, ho! The benefit of hindsight. But I’m pleased for all you others who were at the front and had an encounter with the Goddess. Otherwise, ‘yes’ BW (& SM) count me in for more PS gigs for another fix (but I get your point about tarnishing cherished memories so there is a risk factor). I’ve been listening to Horses and Land post-gig. Sadly, it just ain’t the same as the live Junction/Corn Exchange experience.

  7. Great review for a great gig. Have been a fan for over 30 years and seen her lots of times but last night was special as I took my 10 year old son. Patti spotted him at the front and provided him with ear plugs, plectrum and badge and then invited him (and us!) to the stage so we spent the last hour or so sitting at the side of the stage which was amazing! She even took the time to come and talk to him at the end asking if he enjoyed it – and presented him with another plectrum! She is a real original and such an inspiration – we had an amazing night – my son said the best of his life! Would be really interested to see any photos anyone has…….

  8. Er… Like ! Double-Like ! (Both thumbs up). What you said. All the words you should never use (awesome, iconic, charismatic, shaman) she absolutely is still as well as being a totally bonkers in the nut crazy lady but in a good way. Still like your assessment of her / “Horses” from 13,000 years ago: “It’s what Jim Morrison would have been like, if he was really good and not a dick”. Or words to that effect.

    I also got “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet” and “Night Time” during Lenny’s Garage Punk Stars on 45 medley. Quality. Shoulda been in the moshpit …

  9. I was standing next to Pauline and her son and was amazed when Patti came over to see if they were ok and took them up on stage. I only got into Patti earlier this year when I saw ‘Horses’ on a best album list and gave it a try – what a revelation. Love all of her stuff, and also caught her at Hop Farm in June, when I found myself standing next to her and Lenny at the T-shirt stall! Last night’s set was even better, being more intimate and a lot longer. Incredible………

  10. Dancing Barefoot, Redondo Beach, April Fool, Fuji-san, Free Money, My Blakean Year, Beneath the Southern Cross, Night Time / (We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet / Born To Lose / Pushin’ Too Hard, Ghost Dance, This Is the Girl, Pissing in a River, Because the Night, Peaceable Kingdom / People Have the Power (spoken), Gloria, (encore): Banga, People Have the Power, Rock N Roll Nigger

  11. Pingback: Dexys, Cambridge Corn Exchange, September 11th 2012 | the tale of bengwy

  12. Jon

    Thanks so much for the link to the photos but I can’t access them at the moment – content unavailable – will try later………

  13. Jon , just seen the photos which are great – can also see me and my husband a little on the one of Patti down at the front! Thanks so much for that! And thanks Ben – yes I did need to be logged into Facebook to see them.

  14. These are great Jon – thanks again. Also found this blog by the same photographer which talks about the photos and the gig http://liveon35mm.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/patti-smith-2/#comment-8088

    • That is a great site Pauline, I didn’t realise valerio berdini was such an accomplished photographer. Well worth checking out, thanks for the heads up….

  15. Pingback: American Werewolf Academy and Wussy, The Green Door Store, Brighton, September 29th 2012 | the tale of bengwy

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