Monday, March 11th, 2013
Patti Smith at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto
Frank YangHowever you choose to bracket the timeline – the three weeks since Saturday night’s show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was announced, the two months since her First Thursday performances at the Art Gallery Of Ontario were announced, or the 37 years since her first album Horses was released – I’ve been remiss in my Patti Smith education. To be clear: as long as I’ve been a remotely informed music fan, I’ve known who she was and her importance – you couldn’t be an R.E.M. obsessive and not know about how Horses changed Michael Stipe’s life – and over the years I’ve gotten to know her “hits” (quotes only because she’s only had one song that could be called a hit in the record sales sense of the word), but learning more about her life beyond the broad strokes, about the other facets of her art – all of which are as important as her music to understanding who Patti Smith is – just hadn’t really happened.
Which mad this past week was as good a time as any to make up for lost time. On the back of Smith’s “Camera Solo” photo exhibit at the AGO which opened in February and will run through May, she was in town for a series of events including the First Thursday shows, a book signing, and a screening and Q&A of her documentary film Dream Of Life, in addition to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre show. A lot of Smith, certainly, but long overdue considering that I cannot remember the last time she was in Toronto for a show (The Patti Smith Setlists says aside from a short, four-song set at a TIFF event in 2008, it was Convocation Hall in 2000). I’d caught her briefly at Lollapalooza 2006 when she turned up to play an unannounced solo set at the kids’ stage, but for the most part, these events and their build-up were my crash course in just how much people loved Patti Smith and why.
The timing of the QET show may have been practical, coming at the end of the aforementioned multi-day promotional visit, but it was also a meaningful one for Smith, coming on the 24th anniversary of the death of Smith’s former partner and muse – Robert Mapplethorpe – as well as, as she’d tell us, the 37th anniversary of her meeting her future husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Given the occasion, the evening was billed as “An Evening af Words and Song in Memory of Robert Mapplethorpe” and as well as performing songs from throughout her career, she offered readings from her 2010 book Just Kids, a memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe.
Performing acoustically with her children Jesse Smith and Jackson Smith on piano and guitar respectively and Tony Shanahan on bass – when asked where long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye was, she replied “Pennsylvania” – the performance had a casual and intimate vibe; Smith was friendly and chatty – though her charisma and presence was such that you never forgot that you were in the presence of rock’n'roll royalty – and the sold-out audience hung on her every word, interrupting only to shout out declarations of love and asking permission to dance. With a set list containing songs both classic and new – last year’s Banga was respectably represented – the laid-back presentation didn’t recreate the overt energy that electrified the original recordings, but they remained unquestionably potent.
The punk rock edge was still there – a bit time-worn, perhaps, and sheathed but still tangibly razor-sharp. “Dancing Barefoot” was a jaw-dropper and the screams of “Holy shit!” that rang out as the last note of a scorching “Pissing In A River” faded aptly reflected the thoughts of the 1200 or so who’d just borne witness. And I couldn’t help but feel for those who’d seen Smith in a more conventional concert format where presumably she’d be less free to speak and offer anecdotes like the wonderful backstory to “Because The Night”; as brilliant as the music was, those stories were as much a part of the magic of the show.
Over the course of the almost two-hour show, it became clear this wasn’t a regular concert and not just because it was a musical legend on stage. Whereas others might perform their songs, Smith was sharing facets of her own life set to music, exemplifying the difference between a life in art and a life as art. Ghosts may have pervaded the show, but they did not haunt; rather, they hovered and were honoured, the overwhelming emotion being joyous. I might not have known that much about Smith going into the show, but coming out I now felt I knew her intimately. An utterly unforgettable evening.
Exclaim also has a review of Saturday’s show, while The Globe & Mail, Rolling Stone, and The Toronto Star were in attendance at the First Thursday shows. NOW has an interview with Smith, while The Victoria Times Colonist, CBC, Spinner, The Toronto Star, and Exclaim report from a Q&A session about her photo exhibit. And The Grid offers some thoughts on why Smith remains so important a figure to people of her children’s generation.
Photos: Patti Smith @ The Queen Elizabeth Theatre – March 9, 2013
MP3: Patti Smith – “Wing”
Video: Patti Smith – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Video: Patti Smith – “People Have The Power”
Video: Patti Smith – “Summer Cannibals”
Video: Patti Smith – “Rock’N'Roll Nigger”
Stereogum have offered up a track from John Vanderslice’s whole-album cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, which is available to those who support his Kickstarter to fund his next album Dagger Beach, out this Summer.
Video: Beach House – “Wishes”