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Patti Smith

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

28 January 2011

Patti Smith was mesmerising at the De la Warr Pavilion last night. A genuinely shamanic performer with a voice of honeyed iron. Mixing readings in with songs drawn from across her thirty five year career and making a satisfying and consistent whole.

The musical platform was flimsier than usual. I missed Lenny Kaye's rock-solid guitar. A trio combining daughter Jesse's piano, vibes/guitar and violin/harp (as in Joanna Newsom rather than Sonny Terry) brought some new and interesting textures to familiar favourites. But they were often tentative and Jesse in particular seemed ill at ease. it didn't matter: Patti was in commanding form, owning the songs and driving through them. 

Commanding, but with her usual gawky charm: thanks to the audience, pleasure to be there, frequent references to the virtues of sea air - which Bexhill residents should remember 'even when they get fed up of the town'. Several times she broke off, grinned and apologised for missing a cue. Like the oracle at Delphi stopping midflow, peering through the smoke over her spectacles, and regretting that she hadn't done that particular prophecy very much recently...

She set the tone by singing a spine-tingling 'Beneath the Southern Cross' solo to her own acoustic guitar. Given the original boasted Tom Verlaine as well as Lenny Kaye, it was clear her confidence was high, and rightly so.

A lot of the evening had an elegiac tone. She introduced 'Ghost Dance' by talking of the Hopi's ability to summon the spirits of their ancestors for help and guidance 'which we all can do'. She read her last letter to Robert Mapplethorpe. She sang a song for Jerry Garcia ('who didn't teach me guitar'). She dedicated her wonderful cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' to her late husband Fred - and the lines 'Baby can you hear me now...sing with me somehow' were particularly charged. A beautiful reading from WG Sebald's After Nature focused on the painter Grunewald, whose thirteen year old son died unexpectedly and the artist 'did not long survive him'...

Elegiac but never doomy or downbeat. Patti Smith has come through her tragedies and sadness and wants us to do so as well. Stomping and joyful versions of 'People Have The Power' and 'Because The Night', with the audience roaring out the chorus, were topped by an extraordinary encore of 'Gloria'. Patti said that they hadn't really rehearsed it ('but we haven't rehearsed anything very much'), but any ragged edges were immaterial: it throbbed and burned with all the passion and yearning and self-belief that took her out of that New Jersey 'Piss Factory' onto the train to New York City and into her art and on and on and on...

One of the talkative crowd shouted 'When will your new record be finished?'. She spat back 'Do I look like Nostradamus? ...You sound like my record company.' Watch this space - she's got a lot more to say yet.

(photo courtesy Anna Rhodes)

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