Patti Smith, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame firebrand, punk-rock poet laureate and award-winning author, reminded the world of her legend status Monday night with a stunning, stirring mini-concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre with assists from Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe. The gig followed the world premiere of a new concert film, Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, which chronicles two Los Angeles dates of the singer’s tour where she played her landmark 1975 debut in full (with a guest appearance by Flea on “My Generation”).
Tickets for the screening, which was part of the Tribeca Film Festival, went for between $56 and $86 – steep even by New York City moviegoing prices – but the 2,900-seat audience got its money’s worth over the course of the evening. It began after director Steven Sebring (who previously captured Smith in the 2008 documentary Dream of Life), told the crowd that he had to hurry to complete the film to make the premiere. But if it was a rush job, it didn’t show.
Smith’s visage filled the giant screen, augmenting every face she made (smiling, spitting, snarling) and framing the way she moved (holding out her hands, climbing a ladder to heaven, gyrating instead of doing the watusi). The Horses album may have been the intended star of the movie – and it is an incredible, giddy, proselytizing experience to witness the record performed live – but its hero was its purveyor.
Nearly four decades after Gilda Radner brilliantly lampooned Smith’s onstage presence on Saturday Night Live, this new Horses film, shot over two nights in 2016 and available on Apple Music beginning May 22nd, exemplifies Smith’s unparalleled presence. Artists from PJ Harvey to Courtney Love have attempted to approximate Smith’s stentorian howls, operatic indulgences and back-of-throat grit but her herky-jerky, out-of-control lunges and nearly Biblical arm positions remain singular. At one point, a man in the Wiltern audience shouted, “Take it off,” to which she hissed back, “I’ve got better in the grave than you.”
When Flea comes out at the end of the film for an riotous rendition of “My Generation” (which features new lyrics by Smith like “I don’t need this fucking shit”), his body pogos in place. It’s as we’ve seen Flea move for decades, but compared to the 69-year-old Smith, who tumbles around him and her bandmates, he seems conservative.
For the film, Smith’s backing ensemble dressed like the hippest wedding band you’ve ever seen – each wearing a black vest over a puffy white shirt, highlighted in guitarist Lenny Kaye’s case by a mane of long grey hair that looks like a black-mirror version of Smith’s. Together, they whipped up a formidable racket on songs like “Land” (the punkiest of the bunch), “Gloria” (which was so kinetic it worked its way into “Land”) and “Break It Up” (euphoria set to a backbeat). They also held back for somber numbers like “Free Money” and “Elegie,” the latter finding Smith shouting out all of the great, late artists she misses from Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain to Lemmy and her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. The performances were so stunning in the Beacon, blasted through the venue’s regular PA, that the audience applauded after songs as the film drifted into scenes of backstage shenanigans.
But while Sebring had asked the crowd to sing along and “get into it” before it started, the room stayed seated until the screen was whisked into the rafters. Behind it lay Smith and her bandmates, which counted her son Jackson among their ranks, in the flesh like a shadow group ready to give the film some competition. The stage was bare – the bricks of the back wall and some stark lighting was the group’s backdrop. They plunged right into “Dancing Barefoot” and soon the whole room was up. She focused the set mainly on songs that weren’t on Horses (save an electrifying encore of “Land” and that pesky “Gloria” interpolation) and paused frequently to talk to the audience.
Before a rousing cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What Its Worth,” she spoke of the power of youth and praised the activist students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “‘These are the times that try men’s souls,’ that is what Thomas Paine said in 1774,” she told the crowd. “And every single fucking day what they do in Washington tries our souls.” The crowd cheered. “But parallel to that we have five students who magnified a million, five million, locally. The Parkland Five magnified by millions of young people are the fucking hope of this planet. We have to salute back our youth. We have to be with them. We have to pray with them, march them. Their cause is ours. Their cause is our future.”
After the song, a man in the balcony seemed to be upset by the song, flipping Smith the bird and shouting out. “What is this, Altamont?” she asked. Unable to hear him, she segued into Radio Ethiopia’s “Pissing in a River,” not allowing her self to be drawn down.
When it came time for “Because the Night,” Smith thanked the people involved in the picture before bringing out its writer, Springsteen. He stood onstage solemn and “Bruce”-like until he claimed the second verse for himself and eventually played a stinging guitar solo. When they were done, the old friends hugged. The lights came up and Smith brought out Stipe and her daughter, Jesse Smith, for “People Have the Power,” a song she cowrote with her late husband. This, though, was a celebration, and the R.E.M. singer lost his religion onstage, dancing and singing backups along with everyone.
When it was done, Smith shouted, “Don’t forget it, use your voice,” and the musicians all walked off. The whole evening, including the movie, was only a little over two hours long but it was enough to prove a point: Patti Smith is and forever will be a force of nature.
Patti Smith Set List
“For What It’s Worth”
“Pissing in a River”
“Because the Night” (With Bruce Springsteen)
“People Have the Power” (With Springsteen, Michael Stipe and Jesse Smith)