It’s midway through ‘Land: Horses/Land of A Thousand Dances’ that it becomes crystal clear: Patti Smith is the world’s greatest living rock star. Furiously flailing across the Royal Albert Hall’s storied stage in her trademark monochrome Ann Demeulemeester outfit and imploring us to do the watusi, her mighty howl fills the room; hard and heroic, tough and tender and impossible not to be moved by, physically as well as emotionally.
For half a century Patti Smith has been a byword for a deeply American kind of cool. The mere mention of her name conjures up images of grubby Manhattan sidewalks, of beatniks and blues, of poetry and punk. And yet, to see her in such a deeply British venue as this majestic Victorian dome doesn’t jar at all – in fact she’s an ideal fit for such an illustrious room. Opening with the unaccompanied spoken word of ‘Piss Factory’ to pin-drop silence, the audience – many of whom have had tickets for this rescheduled show for the past two years – are in the palm of her hand from the word go.
Joined by her son Jackson on guitar and her daughter Jesse on keyboards, the first of these two London shows is a family affair and we get a sweet peek at their cosy interaction when Patti announces Jesse’s arrival onstage. “My daughter,” says Patti with a giggle as Jesse whispers something in her ear. “She’s telling me my hair looks nice.” The band then blast into a glorious ‘Redondo Beach’, which Patti dedicates to the late Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. “Goodbye Mr Lee,” she calls out over the 1975 track’s punky reggae bounce.
It’s not the only tribute of the night, as guitarist Lenny Kaye leads a pleasantly scrappy version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I’m Free’ in memory of Charlie Watts. An impeccable interpreter of other people’s work, Patti also coos her way through a stripped-back take on Bob Dylan’s ‘One Too Many Mornings’, introducing the song by telling the rapt crowd about how she fell in love with it 60-odd years ago. You can see the years whizzing past her eyes as she does so, coming to terms with just how long ago that was in real time. “Nevermind,’ she sighs with a shrug and a smirk. Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ and of course her rule-book ripping version of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ also get a look-in, but it’s the elegiac ‘Pissing In A River’ from her 1976 album ‘Radio Ethiopia’ that is the night’s stand out. Almost heavy metal in its intensity, her hardcore growl nearly takes the roof off the room, passionate, poetic and perfectly Patti Smith.
Patti Smith played:
‘My Blakean Year’
‘Blame It on the Sun’ (Stevie Wonder cover)
‘Beneath the Southern Cross’
‘I’m Free’ (The Rolling Stones cover)
‘Walk on the Wild Side’ (Lou Reed cover)
‘Ain’t it Strange’
‘One Too Many Mornings’ (Bob Dylan cover)
‘Pissing in a River’
‘Gloria’ (Them cover)
‘People Have The Power’
‘Not Fade Away’ (The Crickets cover)