(Higher Ground at London Palladium, 24 July 2022. Live review by Dan Paton)
London audiences are often, perhaps unfairly, dismissed as reserved in their enthusiasm but there could be no mistaking the ardour of tonight’s audience for Patti Smith. They spend more time out of their seats than in them, even up in the Royal and Grand circles. There is uninhibited dancing, ecstatic whooping and, at one bizarre moment, a young woman declaring from the Royal Circle that she has a letter for Smith to read, dropping it from the balcony and gesturing for those in the stalls to pass it toward the stage, which they dutifully do. The atmosphere is at first febrile and ultimately celebratory.
Smith, for the most part, allows it to wash over her, maintaining a self deprecating humour. When an audience member shouts out that she is a legend, she responds with something about being the most dishevelled icon possible. She acknowledges the skills of her taut and nuanced band and celebrates the important relationships in her life, but is never more animated than during impassioned readings of Allen Ginsburg’s Footnote To Howl and William Blake’s The Tyger or when celebrating the music of others. She accurately describes Neil Young’s environmental paen ‘After The Goldrush’ as ‘prophetic’, and notes how she saw something singular in Young when watching Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the early 70s.
Smith’s poetry readings use a regimented, repetitive rhythmic approach and sustain an impressive pitch of intensity. The combination of music, poetry and politics on display encapsulates Smith’s emphasis on ‘work’ as being the heart of what she does, the various artistic spaces in which she operates connected by commitment and dedication to craft. It also reveals the way in which Smith views the world in terms that are both spiritual and humane, sacred and profane. She celebrates bodies and desire, but also has a distinct philosophy that celebrates ‘freedom’ and the role that people can play collectively to challenge authority. Her 1988 song ‘People Have The Power’ serves as an encore here – and Smith also recently performed it at Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The set list nimbly balances judicious selections from Smith’s recent work with warhorses that she has been playing, seemingly with undimming enthusiasm and commitment, for the best part of 50 years. The mysterious sea shanty of ‘Nine’ and the mythical road song ‘My Blakean Year’ provide her band, which includes her son Jackson Smith (guitar and bass), Tony Shanahan (bass) and longstanding members Jay Dee Daugherty and guitarist Lenny Kaye, to explore some more subtle textures and drifting sound worlds. Smith’s band have excellent control of tone and dynamics, and both Jackson Smith and Kaye play absorbingly lyrical guitar solos. Kaye steps up to front the band for a raucous romp through The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, allowing Smith a few minutes of vocal rest, and reminding us of the raw, strident quality of the New York punk scene from which Smith first emerged as a musical artist.
On older material such as ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and ‘Because The Night’ (the big hit she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen), Smith still sounds richly sensual and evocative. ‘Free Money’ is impassioned and driving. She concludes the set with her reconfiguring of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’, a reading that has lost none of its unrepentant urgency, initially controlled and then frantic and unrestrained. The only notable absence here is the epic tripartite ‘Land’, which has often been used as a springboard for her more improvisatory vocal approaches. Tonight’s set has some of this, but feels a little more contained.
Smith’s set concluded this first instalment of Higher Ground, a proposed series of events from the promoter Serious celebrating female artists. The other performers were Nadine Shah, whose distinctive pop songs combine wry lyrical observations, theatrical vocal expression and intricate grooves. The multifaceted effects deployed by saxophonist Pete Wareham make a crucial contribution to her sound. Opening act Connie Constance is striking, confident and exuberant and has a distinctive identity as a rare black artist in the indie punk sphere. There is definitely real potential here – but the music lacks some of the nuances and complexities of the rest of the evening. The programme as a whole provided both complementary and contrasting elements, and provocation and emotional depth in equal measure.