Patti Smith @ Milwaukee Theatre
March 9, 2017
Patti Smith returned on March 9 for her first Milwaukee concert in 38 years. Although her absence was long, the connection she once forged with the city was palpable throughout her show at the Milwaukee Theatre. She was smiling and radiant, physically strong and in full command.
Aside from a rear screen projection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s cover for her debut album, Horses, and a rack of seldom used overhead lights, Smith kept the production as simple as her early performances in New York clubs, albeit the stage was considerably more spacious than the cramped corner she once occupied at CBGB’s. She performed Horses song by song, joking midway, “So that was Side A,” and recalled the tactile pleasure of turning over the album and setting the needle onto the spinning surface.
Unlike the emotionally rote performances of most rock veterans, Smith was as engaged with her material as she was at the moment of their creation. True, some of the Horses selections were musically little changed, riding on a steady thrumming rock groove set by her original guitarist, Lenny Kaye, leading longtime collaborators Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) and Tony Shanahan (bass, keyboards) plus Smith’s son Jackson on guitar. But Smith’s physical, emotional and spiritual absorption transcended any suggestion that singing those words had become work for her. Her power was undiminished by time and repetition.
A few numbers underwent transformation. “Birdland” and “Land” were substantially rewritten. She told stories, including the dream of a marble statue encased in chains that inspired “Break It Up,” and turned “Elegie” into an almost prayerful litany of cultural figures who died during her lifetime.
Following Horses, she performed a trilogy of numbers written for her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith: “Dancing Barefoot,” “Because the Night” and the stirringly beautiful “Frederick.” Smith dedicated “Ghost Dance” to the Standing Rock protestors and infused the somber “Citizenship” with a little Emma Lazarus and a reminder that America “was built on the backs of immigrants.” The Ronald Reagan-era lyric from “People Have the Power” sounded less theoretical and more a call to arms than ever.
Smith reserved the loudest blast of political outrage for the end. The Who’s “My Generation,” a snarling staple of her shows since the ’70s, became an acute commentary on her generation, now grown into AARP membership. “We had dreams,” she said—revolution, visions, rock ’n’ roll—“and we also had Donald Trump,” who like Smith is age 70. She ended the evening on a rousing note, urging her hearers to bring light into the darkness, to fight hatred with love. “Go forth!” she bade. “Be of good heart!”