review of 10/12/96 lifebeat concert, washington, dc

[contributed by Steve Kenney]

The gorgeous Warner Theater is small but was not sold out for this show. I had a ticket in the cheap seats (upper balcony), but because they were filming for VH1 and wanted the place to at least look full, those of us up there were invited to fill empty seats on the floor, so I made it to about 20th row center.

Martina Navratilova and Kate Clinton were the emcees, keeping the crowd occupied during stage changes.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora started with three acoustic songs. I'm no fan of these guys, but they were actually not bad. Their third song was a nice version of "Bridge over Troubled Waters." The Tony Rich Project was next; had never heard them before; kind of funk-pop stuff, nice sound, catchy tunes, enjoyable.

Then, Patti. She and the band came out, and she thanked everyone for being there and for making it possible for her to be there. She played about 30 minutes (no one played longer than 30 minutes, there was a lot more emcee prattle than music). The set list:

People Have the Power (spoken)
Gone Again
Southern Cross
About a Boy
Wild Leaves
Rock 'N' Roll Nigger
"People Have the Power" was its usual fervent self, and particularly appropriate in this event intended to mobilize people to contribute to the fight against AIDS. Patti was yelling at the end, as the band crashed into "Gone Again." It was a good version, she was shaking and wringing her hands, but the band was somewhat understated (not that kind of brooding intensity and crowding around her like when they played it on The Tonight Show).

"Southern Cross" -- only Patti on acoustic guitar; the rest of the band remained on their electric instruments, though Lenny did not play the way Verlaine plays on the record, he was doing more the same kind of strumming on his electric guitar that Patti does. Patti's phrasing was more like singing than I've heard it before (the recorded version and other live versions I've heard have a real spoken word quality to them). Tony Shanahan stepped in to do the Jeff Buckley- backing vocal and it was piercing, very loud and strong and it sounded great.

After "Southern Cross," Patti said that she was glad she was in DC, said she found herself thinking about all the politicians here. "I imagine Al Gore getting up at 3 a.m. and putting on his bathrobe and getting some donuts and listening to his Grateful Dead records....I wonder if it really happens..."

"About a Boy" -- this was a great version, very different, as always. As the band began with its droning and feedback, Patti played her prayer bowl. Her voice was very intense, there was a growl in it that I hadn't heard before when she sang "Beyond it all." When the band got to the "jam" part, they just took off. Oliver Ray in particular was doing some great, skronking guitar acrobatics. Patti didn't sing any of the words that are in this part of the song on the album, the "I stood among them" etc. Instead, she spoke/chanted to Cobain, to all those who have died from AIDS, threading (no pun intended) her words with quilt-related references, clearly inspired by the display of the "NAMES Project" quilt here this weekend. ("You are woven...into the fabric...of our hearts..." etc. I tried to transcribe some of it but it was hard and I was too caught up watching and listening.) In this part of the song, her vocals were also more loud and clear than I've ever heard them before. After a point, the song just ended, with a sudden abruptness.

"Wild Leaves" -- Patti noted that she had written this song for Robert Mapplethorpe's 40th birthday. I knew it was for him, but the birthday aspect was a tidbit I'd never heard before. It was a pretty version, though not as gripping in its fragility and other-worldliness as the version in Central Park last month. Lenny, in particular, was not as much a part of this rendition as he has been recently. It was largely just Jay Dee's tom toms and Patti's voice.

Rock 'N' Roll Nigger" -- this was weird. First of all, I thought this was a dicey choice, given that the audience was at least 50 percent African-American and were not Patti fans. I guess I saw the potential for a lot of people who didn't know much about Patti to be rather outraged by this. The crowd was definitely not a Patti crowd; though I saw a few folks with albums in their hands that they hoped to get signed, and there were one or two shouts of "Patti!!" Most of the crowd clearly had no idea at all who Patti was ; many were there for Chaka Khan (who definitely rocked during her part of the show), and I saw a few fist-waving Bon Jovi heads. Patti introduced the song as follows (this is essentially a verbatim transcript):

Back in the 70s, when I had the Patti Smith Group, Lenny Kaye and I were presumptuous enough to think we could redefine the word nigger, turn it from something derogatory into a badge for artists, and mutants, like we were -- though not in that order. It seems like the niggers of the 80s were people with AIDS. Lets see if we can make the niggers of the 90s...laundresses, and mothers, like I am...
And then the band launched into a tremendous version. Patti was practically pogo-ing, jerking around at the edge of the stage, threw it to Lenny for his verse, then straight into the "outside, outside" bridge. When the band stepped up the jam, she hung out for a minute, stepped back to listen, then sat down on the edge of the stage with her legs hanging off, then climbed down into the audience, took a few steps up the aisle, turned to look at the band, then kept going up the aisle, slowly, shaking hands and high-fiving people who scurried to the aisle to say hi. All the while, the band is just going ballistic. She got almost to the back of the theater, to the lobby, about to where I was sitting, and then looked back at the stage, looked oddly around, then ran back up there, jumped up, started singing again as the band ground on. She finished the song on her knees, shouting into the microphone "protect your children!! protect your selves!! protect your loved ones!! protect your enemies!!" And the song crashed to an end. A fairly sizable portion of the crowd on the floor was finally on its feet, though there still seemed to be an edge of "who the hell is this woman" in the air.

And that was it. Weird and ferocious and wholly idiosyncratic as always. I was delighted I went even if it was only a half-hour. One of the guys from Lifebeat who came out to talk and thank people during the next stage change summed it up very well: "You just saw a performance by Patti Smith that you'll be talking about for many, many years...I hope we'll see MOST of it on VH1 next month..."

By the way, this show will air on VH1 on Saturday, November 2 at 4pm (I assume Eastern time).

Copyright © Steven Kenney 1996

back to babelogue