review of 9/5/96 central park, nyc show

[contributed by Steven Kenney]

"Mother has arrived...."

And so we begin. Patti came out on stage, an hour late, smiling, and greeted us with this double, maybe even triple entendre. An hour late cos she was waiting for her mother to arrive from Jersey. But perhaps she was also referring to herself, mother of two back on the rock and roll stage, and perhaps referring as well to herself and the "godmother of punk" label she's worn in all those magazine articles over the last year, over her whole career. "Some people in high places didn't think you'd come, but I knew you'd be here..." She'd arrived, and she was ready to begin.

She started out with a reading, Early Work in her hand. Leafing through the book, searching for the piece, just paging through the whole book again and again. "I know it's in disappeared..." Someone from the audience shouted out "page 118!!" and she laughed; turned to page 118 and said "hey, wait a minute, it's a blank page! You tryin' to tell me something?"

She launched into "Piss Factory." Several on the babel-list said after the show that they'd enjoyed other versions more, that they miss the piano accompaniment from the old single. But it was surely electric, ferocious, it's the nature of the piece, 25 years later and she still spits it out, stuttering, racing ahead of herself, caught up in the emotion of it like she could smell Dot Hook again, right there and then.

The band is ready to go. They start to feed back, to drone, then pick up the pace and the beat. It's beginning to be recognizable. It's "Radio Ethiopia," I kid you not. Oliver Ray seems especially into it, a chance for him to let loose on this assault of a song. I can't believe she's playing this at all, let alone to start the show; this is a tremendously gutsy play, this piece that even back in the 70s made alot of people wince, too sonically opaque, too self-indulgent. Make no mistake, she's not here to play for the AOR guys, she's here to do her thing. Three chord rock merged with the power of the word, but the chords come undone, deconstructed into just raw power and sound and the words become the glue. She's stalking back and forth across the stage, looking for the ghosts of "Radio Ethiopia's" past as the band accelerates. And she begins to babel. I don't know how much of the "original" (album version) lyrics she summoned, beyond some interpolation of the opening "verse" ("inside of your brain is a lever!"...), but before long she'd segued into this rap about the South African runner who won the gold in Atlanta, the first black South African to win an Olympic medal as I recall. How he was just a coal miner, this runner, but he believed, he reached for what he knew could be his, the honor and glory. Like the raps she's done in some other songs at live shows in the past year, most notably "Not Fade Away" in December, I was struck, wondering how much of this was a riff off the kernel of a more "formal," crafted piece, and how much she was just verbalizing what was churning around in her head, emitting it in real time as it churned. The next day my eyes were drawn to this line on the back cover of the Radio Ethiopia album: "all honor goes to the runner who would still seek glory in the heart of failure..." You be the judge...

The song grinds to a halt. The crowd is stunned. Or is it just me? I know I'm stunned...

Onto a spoken rendition of "People Have the Power," eyes closed, pushing it out, the cadence so different and more affecting than the sung version. And at the end, over and over, "the people, have the power, the people, have the power, the people --" and the band kicks into "Gone Again." This transition isn't even really a "transition" per se, but it just works so well, it's hard to imagine any other song but this coming out of the poem. The version was really powerful, more so than the powerful-to-begin-with album version, the band very improvisational and murky during the spoken bridge, her rhythm staccato, then chanting the closing couplets, herking and jerking, Lenny Kaye grumbling something into the mike like the grumbles that apparently are Fred's, buried in the mix on the recorded version.

Patti then introduced a special guest, "someone I've known for a long time, Zeke from Matt Umanov Guitar Shop. I've known him a long time but...but I don't know his last name." (I'm paraphrasing all these quotes, natch). He sidles up to her and tells her, and she smiles, recovers nicely saying "oh, no wonder I couldn't remember, it's too beautiful to remember...Shine...Zeke Shine..." They did a lovely version of "Wing" with Zeke Shine on electric slide guitar, filling in between Patti's words, adding a beautiful dimension to the song. Patti's voice was languid, lost in reverie, in heaven blue.

"Beneath the Southern Cross" -- Patti and Lenny sit down with their acoustic guitars. This was really fascinating, she got the verses all bolloxed up, sang the third where the second should have gone, then sang the third again when she got to its rightful place, and she was visibly upset, sputtering "ah shit" slightly out of range of the mike. And from there out, she concentrated intensely on her strumming, going at it harder and harder (I guess she's still getting accustomed to playing and singing at the same time). Lenny was with her every step of the way, sometimes getting just as intense, matching her, sometimes dropping back and doing counterpoints, and on and on, their dual strumming taking on this drone quality. It reminded me of the early Velvet Underground, but acoustic, just this strumming that'd be monotonous if it wasn't so intense. Could have been a big gaffe, but wound up being a really signature moment in my view. Didn't miss Verlaine at all, as I thought I might; too much else going on here.

Back to the electric instruments for "Dancing Barefoot." This has been one of the strongest pieces she's performed each time I've seen her since in the last year, she seems surest on her feet in this song, excuse the pun. It doesn't hurt that the song is really written to be performed, strange music drawing you in. Off with the shoes and socks (is it just me, or does this seem to be getting a little rote, a little too cute? I remember someone before the show telling me about a recent show where she tossed a sock into the audience and someone in the front row grabbed it, and after the song was over she wanted it back from him. He was apparently somewhat at a loss as to what to do. This time, she put them in her pockets...). She came out to the very edge of the stage during the refrain at the end, chanting "oh god I fell for you" and then sort of hurtling herself back toward the band as she shouted out "oh god, I'm back again!"

"Redondo Beach" -- Patti says that "this one's for the girls..." Like on the first night's Irving Plaza tape (I didn't see the show), this seemed a little sluggish to me; Tony Shanahan is a terrific bass player, but he doesn't quite get the feel of this line right, and the bass line is sink or swim for the whole song. Her voice was in good Redondo form, though, those long reggae vowel sounds and the staccato phrasing, and it picked up noticeably for the last couple of verses. All good things in all good time, I guess...

"The Wicked Messenger" -- as in the other versions I saw in December, this was tremendously more powerful than the album version, Lenny especially just tearing it off, Patti positively bug-eyed, out there during the bridge, shaking as she shouted "shiver!! SHIV-AHHHH!!!!"

"Ain't it Strange" -- indeed. I've never understood those people (rock critics, mostly, go figure 'em) who put down the Radio Ethiopia album as too metal, too much rock and not enough Rimbaud; the word is buried in the mix sometimes but the imagery has always been as stark and powerful to me as anything on Horses -- just listen to "Ain't it Strange." I'd been intrigued thinking about how this would sound in '96, the places she goes in this song so much darker and more unnerving than anywhere she seems to be today. It starts slow, almost meek, and she only does a handful of the original lyrics before she starts to improv. The band is laying down this vamp that's alot more reggae than the original version and it sounds great. They quiet, she quiets and says "this is a possible..." Indeed. The rest of the babel I've lost, till someone transcribes the tape. Before you can really notice, she's singing "When Doves Cry," and the band is just bomping along, nothing's changed but everything's changed, effortlessly. I thought this was an inspired choice for a cover when I first heard about it, before she started doing the medley with AIS, and I was right. From there to another improv-you-be-the-judge rap about a dove, I can't even begin to capture it, but she kept bringing it back around to the line "I moved, in a-no-ther di-rec-TION." It's not clear the band has any idea where she's going or when she'll be back, but they stay right in step. Eventually we're back in "Ain't it Strange," the bridge, will you go to the temple tonight, but kind of abruptly she just kind of peters out, moves again in yet another direction and turns to Jay Dee Daugherty and she's done. I can't deny I was a little disappointed not to experience the violence of the versions of old, not to hear her call God out to square off ("make a move!!"), but the spontaneity and improv of the medley and the babel make up for it, it's like a whole new song while still being "Ain't it Strange." Definitely a highlight from this vantage point.

Patti introduced the next song as something they'd been practicing but hadn't performed since around when she'd last played in Central Park. She also said it was Richard Sohl's favorite song and she wanted to play it for him. But first, "I want to introduce, the mother of my sister...," and she brought her mom Beverly out on stage to a big hand. Bev smiled and waved and said something about the flyers having worked, or something. And then they started "Kimberly," and it was dead on, like she'd never stopped playing it, down to the inflections and rhythms in her voice, and the band sounded great. Patti seemed even more emotional than usual. During the chorus she came out to the front of stage left and drew out the jam, repeating "into your starry eyes, looking deep in your eyes," really caught up in it, while the band vamped. It was terrific, with a big-sounding finish.

"Summer Cannibals" -- not alot to say about this. It's a damn catchy song, made to be a single, and like many good singles it sounds live almost exactly like it does recorded. But it does add an element to see Patti sort of miming the lyrics as she sings them ("the air, the vicious air, pressed against my face" with her hands pressed against her face -- a little corny, I guess, but it works).

"Ghost Dance" -- Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan acoustic, Jay Dee Daugherty comes out front stage with a big shoulder-slung drum and plays that with a mallet. Oliver Ray looks like a third wheel and looks like he knows he looks like a third wheel. Patti seems very focused in on herself during this song, eyes closed, walking back toward the drums toward the end.

"About a Boy" -- like "The Wicked Messenger," this is alot more open-ended than on the album, another piece that serves as a venue for a babel come to her and for the band to go high throttle as they wander around musically behind her. I like the recorded version, but it's much more powerful live, she seems to be simultaneously channeling Cobain's very real pain and damning him for electing to let it win in the end, down there with him while on the album she seems more an observer.

"Not Fade Away" -- I've always loved the idea of Patti doing a cover of this, and not just because I've been a Deadhead for years. It strikes me as coming from the same spirit as the covers of "Gloria" and "Land of a Thousand Dances," one of the great, primal, bone-simple songs in the history of rock, another experiment in letting the power of the word take those couple-or-three chords to places they never imagined going. Kind of disappointing that she didn't launch into one of those raps in the middle like she did in December at the shows with Dylan, which gave those versions that weird electric edge. But she did rock out on the harmonica. The review of the show in the New York Post really trashed Patti's harp playing, going on about how unmusical and grating it is. Well, objectively, yeah, she's not very good at it, but that seems completely beside the point. The jam is the point, and that she does marvelously. There was a moment when Lenny Kaye was playing a lead in the middle of the song and Patti leaned her face and harp down into the body of Lenny's guitar and he reared back a little and she leaned further in, and it was like one of those classic moments when the two guitarists in one of those heavy metal hair bands square off and trade leads back and forth, but it was this little screechy harp instead of a guitar. I thought it was really raw and kind of cute. At the end she said "Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and the Grateful Dead," very matter-of-factly. Nuff said.

"Wild Leaves" -- "I'd like to do this little song for my great friend Robert Mapplethorpe." I've always thought this was a beautiful song marred by over-production on the album (what is that, a damned harpsichord?!?). Live, it's like a totally different animal, Lenny Kaye substituting this very delicate, very emotive, quiet guitar playing. Patti seemed to be almost literally in a trance, eyes closed, looking as if she isn't even aware of the words coming out of her mouth. Her hair had come all unglued during the "Not Fade Away," and as she stood there singing "Wild Leaves" she started absent-mindedly to braid it, one braid, then another; I don't know why, but I found that remarkable in a way I can't even begin to articulate.

"Free Money" -- this was, simply, too much. This was another song that sounded kind of sluggish to me on the Irving Plaza tape, perhaps just because it's one of my favorites and I had such great expectations of it. She seemed hesitant about it in June, probably cos it's so infused with Richard Sohl. She obviously had made her peace with the song this night in the park, cos it was just amazing. Not having Sohl's piano intro is a damn shame, but Lenny Kaye did OK imitating it, and the song, the band, Patti's vocal revved up just like they do on versions of old, building to crescendo after crescendo, tight and fierce. By the chorus at the end, Patti had her back to the audience, hunkered down near the drum kit, and she was just YELLING, she couldn't even get the "free" out, just "MONEY!! (breath) MON-AYY," over and over.

"People Have the Power" -- I'm really glad she came back to play this in its song form. Kind of like "Summer Cannibals," it's one of those songs that can't help but sound like the record even when it's live, but it clearly means so much to her, the spirit of Fred, the spirit of "we created it, let's take it over." Her spirits were obviously soaring after the "Free Money," and it sounded great. At the end, she said something like "that song was brought to you by Fred "Sonic" Smith.

"Smoke on the Water" -- and here comes Jackson, also brought to us in part by Fred "Sonic" Smith. I've got to admit, I have some mixed feelings about this. When I heard about it the first time her son came out to play this, I thought it was charming as hell, but it's beginning to feel like a shtick now that it's an every-night occurrence. At the same time, it's intuitively clear she's not doing it to manipulate the crowd; I think she just loves the hell out of her kid and she's giving him a chance to do something that every single one of us have fantasized about since we were his age. Plus, I've always had a soft spot for Deep Purple, what can I say. I must say, the kid is a pretty damned good lead guitar player, if a bit of a ham (those impossibly fast Ritchie Blackmore runs up and down the fret board in between songs, etc). Patti leaned into the mike for the "fire in the sky" on each chorus, though I have to say it seemed a little lackluster, perhaps just getting a little wrung out after those last couple of really powerful songs.

"Gloria" -- it's the Them version, the old chestnut version, of course, but no one's complaining. Jackson stayed out there (first I've heard of him sticking around for anything other than the Purple cover). Lenny sang the first verse, Tony Shanahan the second, free-styling the lyrics a little, and as the band jammed a little Patti geared up to sing. She segued it into the "In Excelsis Deo" version, gearing up about a girl, humpin' on a parking meter, leanin' on a parking meter, but in the rhythm and cadence of the Them version, and then winding up to the release moment, "and her name is G - L- O - R- I,I,I,I,I,A," the crowd exultant, she moves to the front of the stage and gives it everything she's got, leans down, eggs us in the first few rows to sing along, and many do, once, twice, but as she's coaxing it out of us and coaxing it out of herself the band pulls it closed; she didn't seem ready for that. They rumble and crash and she moves back toward them and they're done. That's it. Thank you. The crowd has left its body. The band leaves the stage.

Encore: "Rock n' Roll Nigger" -- Patti comes back out and introduces this song as "my mother's favorite, bless her. She likes to do laundry to it." And oh, by the way, "this fella here is Thurston Moore." No shit! Jackson's back out there too, it's a guitar army with the two of them and Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray. I was psyched for the "Land" she's been doing to segue into this, but this was great, really out of control as the song progressed. Thurston Moore started out following the leader, but by the jam before the vocal comes back in he was doing his patented assault-and-battery against his guitar, and the rest of the band edged out there along with him, Patti almost lost in the chaos of it all if you can believe that. Like "Gloria," it seemed to end kind of abruptly, but if it hadn't who knows what would have happened. Done and off the stage again.

2nd encore -- "The Jackson Song" -- she did this during the sound check, so it didn't come as a total surprise, but still I didn't quite expect it; I'm not aware of a show she's done since she started performing again where she didn't end it all up with "Farewell Reel." Perhaps cos Jackson was out there for three songs tonight, maybe tonight was his night to be the closing benediction. I don't remember her introducing it, she and Tony Shanahan by themselves just started to play. Her voice was a little ragged, though heartfelt, but when she got to the chorus she just COULDN'T hit the high notes, it was gone. She seemed a little upset but more so just accepting, she knew she'd gone all the way to the end. She was OK again on the verse, but next chorus she was even more gone, no high notes and even on the lower notes she sounded off key. Tony sang the rest of that chorus and the remaining ones pretty much by himself. Some people have said since the show that they found this kind of sad, and I guess it was, a little, but I saw it less as an indication of her ability diminishing than an indication of her ability to still put everything she has out there for the taking.

And that was it.

After the show, about twenty of the babel-list members convened at El Quijote, on 23rd Street next door to the Chelsea Hotel to eat and drink and match faces to email monikers and begin processing this amazing day and evening. All the specifics of the show, Patti, the band aside, I think that meeting all these people there and in the park was a big part of what made the whole thing so great for me. I found it rather telling that we really didn't talk all that much about the show, at least down on my end of the table; what the hell could we really say?

Copyright © Steven Kenney 1996

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