This show was both the last of a busy two-week run of five shows and the last one that I’ve been holding a ticket for since 2019. This one was at least outdoors, so I was hoping it’d be a bit less cramped and humid than the last.
Patti Smith hasn’t released a proper new album since Banga in 2012, but that hasn’t stopped her from periodic touring. She’s also 75, which doesn’t seem to be stopping her, either. She did release Live at Electric Lady last year as a Spotify exclusive, but otherwise she hasn’t released much new music. With a catalog like hers, she doesn’t need to, and besides, she’s been busy with other projects, in particular her writing. I assumed the songs from the live EP/album (it’s seven songs, so take your pick) would form the basis of her set, but otherwise I didn’t know what to expect. As it turned out, that assumption didn’t hold at all: the only song from it that she played was her low-key take on Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”. I would’ve absolutely loved to see her do Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It On the Sun”, but that one doesn’t seem to have entered regular rotation.
That said, the songs she did choose were an excellent bunch, well-scattered from throughout her long career. I note with pleasure that there was only an overlap of five songs with her last appearance in Berlin (at the same venue), all of which are among her absolute best. At that last show, I complained a bit that some songs felt a bit slow and the overall vibe was a bit downbeat and lacking in strength and energy. Smith was playing with the same band as before, but this time was completely different. The band were tight and the set was generally quiet upbeat and energetic. Patti was full of enthusiasm and passion. Her son Jackson’s solos were generally stronger, more melodic, and more creative. There was hardly a dull moment!
Of course the old classics like “Redondo Beach” and “Free Money” went over well, but I also really enjoyed “Don’t Say Nothing”, a song with a great groove and an even better lyric about dealing with the guilt of not speaking up when someone speaks hatefully of another. Patti read the “footnote” section of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” without musical accompaniment, despite that her song “Spell” uses the same words with musical arrangement. It was nonetheless powerful and felt like a throwback to her earlier days, when she more regularly mixed poetry and song in her live performances. She stumbled at a couple points, yet never let it get away from her. The audience was completely transfixed.
As usual, Patti left the stage for a brief break and let keyboardist/bassist Tony Shanahan and guitarist Lenny Kaye each take their turn at a beloved cover. Both rocked hard, and then Patti returned and followed that up with “25th Floor”, which rocked even harder. She said she remembered the exact day she wrote it (December 10, 1976) because it was the night that Fred “Sonic” Smith (Jackson’s father) first kissed her. The one misstep of the night was the next number, “Nine”, written as a birthday present some years ago for Johnny Depp, whose birthday was the night before. Patti didn’t mention him by name, nor did she address his recent controversies, but the performance nonetheless felt like a show of support, which bothered me in some way. It doesn’t help that the song (published in 2012!) contains an appropriated slur for Romani people. She should know better! Interestingly, the audience also did not seem amused, but for different reasons. Both that song and the following (“One Too Many Mornings”) were performed in quieter, acoustic-oriented arrangements, and I heard a surprising number of demands for “rock and roll”. I don’t mind a little variety or a pause for breath during an otherwise quite vigorous performance, but apparently that was too much for some.
At any rate, the punters got what they wanted. The rest of the set returned to her most exuberant and rocking classics. I certainly wasn’t going to complain about that! Several of her songs carry an incredible transcendence, but it’s still tough to beat Patti’s gleefully gender-bending and guilt-averse take on Them’s “Gloria”. For the encore, they predictably played “People Have the Power”, but to my surprise, Smith picked up an electric guitar and delivered a wild noise solo at the end!
Several times throughout the night, both during songs and between them, Smith spoke to the crowd about topical issues, in particular gun violence, war, and political liberation. It’s the sort of thing that would probably come across as inauthentic or painfully over-earnest by most performers. But Smith has a way of commanding a space and exuding confidence that change is possible and within our reach. Honestly, it’s inspiring. I admire that she can take her already-political songs and guide them into new territory to address the present day.
If I can overlook my annoyance with “Nine”, this was close to a perfect show. The songs were great, the performances were solid, and the mix was quite good despite being outdoors. It was quite crowded, which was fairly uncomfortable at times, but again, at least it was outside. Smith claimed it was her largest show ever in Berlin. The Zitadelle holds somewhere between 5000 and 10000 people, so it’s certainly possible. Somehow Smith has avoided falling into obscurity and seems to only gain credibility and popularity with time. I’m impressed that her idiosyncratic and lyrical take on rock music translates as well as it does!
Here’s the setlist:
01. The Wicked Messenger [Bob Dylan cover]
02. Redondo Beach
04. Free Money
05. Footnote to “Howl” [Allen Ginsberg reading]
06. Don’t Say Nothing
07. Dancing Barefoot
08. Beneath the Southern Cross / Within You Without You [The Beatles cover tease]
09. Stone Free [Jimi Hendrix Experience cover, lead vocals by Tony Shanahan]
10. I Wanna Be Your Dog [The Stooges cover, lead vocals by Lenny Kaye]
11. 25th Floor
13. One Too Many Mornings [Bob Dylan cover]
14. Because the Night
15. Pissing in a River
16. Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria [Them adaptation]
17. People Have the Power