Caught in the Act
by Chris Brazier
At London's Rainbow on Saturday night the Patti Smith Group gave another devastating performance which left a packed audience demanding, and getting, a second encore at a quarter past midnight after a show that had lasted over two hours.
Response to Patti was instant as she entered to the circling organ which prefaces "Privilege," a strange little figure in an oversize bowler hat, shaking a crook and a toy sheep as she spat out "The Lord is my shepherd."
Her voice was gloriously resonant, and the new Easter album (only that record's most dispensable track, "Ghost Dance," omitted) sounded even stronger live. "Space Monkey," particularly, was much more convincingly raunchy (it helps being able to make out the lyrics); and "25th Floor"s volcanic density was made for live performance, providing the justification at last for Patti's defiantly amateur (in both senses of the word) guitar playing.
The show reached an inevitable peak about three-quarters of the way through with the startling grandeur of "Because the Night," the Springsteen collaboration, which is set fair for the upper reaches of the singles chart - no surprise given its heroic ring, its irresistible immediacy.
And it was a triumph as much for the band as for the lady herself. All the misguided charges of incompetence are way behind them now, and they're being pushed even further forward.
Lenny Kaye even takes over vocals for a competent version of "The Kids Are Alright," and Patti is becoming more the lead singer with a group than the all-shouldering high priestess she was at the cataclysmic Roundhouse gig two years ago. Which is fine in itself, but it's also where my reservations about the gig start to trickle in.
For a start, this is a different Patti Smith from the lady I came to know and love. She's certainly very tired after the European tour, but it was the same near the start of the tour in Berlin - she has none of the bounding excess of energy, the sheer childlike exuberance that used to crackle through her performance. She often stands stock-still or goes through stagecraft motions where before she'd leap up and down excitedly.
It reduces her power slightly, even though we have no right to expect anything other than such a development.
But hand in hand with that is a drastic reduction in her communication with the audience - she seemed unable to think of anything more to say than "I'm really happy to be here," and sparingly now does she spin into one of those spontaneous poetry-stabs for which she is famous.
The couple of times she started improvising fell embarassingly flat, as at the end of "We Three" (which eventually resolved itself into the "tick/tock, f*** the clock" intro to "Time Is On My Side" that we first saw at the Roundhouse) or worse, when she hushed the band up suddenly during "Land" as if she was about to come up with something really momentous, then could think of nothing and resorted to shouting in childish exasperation.
And besides, after "Becasue the Night" things started to disintegrate, partly I think, due to her exhaustion, but more because of an interminable edition of "Radio Ethiopia" which still leaves this boy cringing and even angry at its ridiculous self-indulgence and always will do so.
I was forced to laugh, though, when Ivan Kral, laughing, hit on the riff to "Whole Lotta Love" midway through, then turned to see Lenny Kaye, shaking his head disapprovingly, and immediately broke into a (presumably approved) free-form run.
After that even the quintessential and best-loved Patti Smith pieces, "Gloria" and "Land," couldn't lift me again. She makes mistakes, but part of her charm is her courageous readiness to go out on a limb. I'm still right under her spell, and it looks like she's at last becoming the star she's always deserved to be.
Preceding her were Tapper Zukie and the Intimidators, who doubtless play fine reggae but whom I found incomprehensible and tedious; and Subway Sect. A big break which they seized with the best performance I've yet seen from them - with their twisted guitar-sound and tortured lyrical style they really are progressing quickly down the trail behind the most prominent New Yorkers they admire so much.
Copyright © Melody Maker 1978