Adrian Masters attends The Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay to witness a virtuoso performance from the legendary Patti Smith.
She’d won us over from the moment she walked on The Coal Exchange stage, with her band and without fuss. And without fuss, they launched into ‘Dancing Barefoot’, a warm, welcoming opener. Smiling and clearly pleased to be there, she absorbed the warmth radiating from us and reflected it back.
Her new song ‘April Fool’ felt as old and comfortable as any of the other old and comfortable songs which made up the first part of the show.
But old and comfortable is not really what Patti Smith does. A joyful ‘Redondo Beach,’ never one of my favourites, swayed us and an atmospheric ‘Fuji-san’ uplifted us and maintained the tone.
These were familiar songs, crystal clear (the sound at the Coal Exchange better than I remember). From the singer, smiles, chatting, jokes. She answered heckles with a story, a quip, even a faux-angry ‘shut up.’ She brought up her Welsh ancestry: ‘When the tour bus came into Wales, my Welsh blood was singing,’ she said. She cooed; we cooed.
This was a woman relaxed about rocking, not with the self-consciousness of a poet slumming it on the stage. Although nothing could stop the poetry breaking through in fragments, this was a rock show, a rock band, a rock star.
A word about her appearance, because if you’ve read her memoir, Just Kids, you’ll know how important appearance is to her, although not in the conventional sense. She was wearing a baggy t-shirt, old jeans and jacket, her greying long hair twisted almost into ringlets. And the famous profile: like Virginia Woolf carved in stone as if she were a permanent presence on this earth. I suspect she always looked like that.
There was a beautiful ‘We Three,’ prefaced by a memory of Sundays watching Tom Verlaine playing the guitar at CBGB’s, one of several good anecdotes, including one about her friendship with Johnny Depp. When the crowd gently mocked her name-dropping, she told us it took three years and one very late night for her to realise her friend was ‘a handsome fellow.’
There was a gleeful, high-powered ‘Because the Night,’ a crowd-pleaser that more than pleased the crowd, delivered with none of the resentment that ‘serious’ artists sometimes feel towards their biggest hits. And all this would have been enough. It would have been more than enough. But this is Patti Smith: poet, dreamer, misfit, a believer in Shamanism and spirits.
Our first glimpse of this Patti came when she picked up her guitar for ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ which, on record, is a sad, pretty, simple one-chord lament. Tonight it turned into a monster: three fuzzed guitars, strummed – no, thrashed – with exhausting intensity. Patti ended it hunched double over her guitar and the amp, a fierce pose. She turned and a sly grin crept across her face as her wolfish eyes poked through her long hair.
And then there was ‘Gloria.’ You know Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’; a twisted take on Van Morrison’s oldie, bookended with one of her oldest lines of poetry: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.’ Well, this was a powerful, exhilarating performance that somehow pushed into the edge, over the edge and fell off into a precipice. She literally became lost in it, extemporising the stretch near the song’s false ending which precedes a final crescendo of ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’s, an extemporising which dragged her band into unfamiliar musical territory.
She shouted at them to go back, flashes of anger across her face, a snarl, spitting, bellowing improvised versions of the line, further shouted instructions to bring the song back, the band all the while exchanging glances with each other and with her. She closed her eyes as they approached and failed to reach the end. ‘Jesus’ turned into ‘Jesus Christ.’ My wife heard her say ‘I don’t know where I am, help me’ amongst the bellowing. She turned her back, she kept improvising, the band slowed down, sped up and somehow they found their way together to the same place and she raised her arms, exhausted, dragged out her lines, leant onto the mic and snarled ‘Not mine’ before that final spiral of Glorias.
I have never witnessed or heard anything like it before: performer and band, exposed creatively and personally, their eyes flashing panic, but strong in their abilities and in their relationships with each other.
When it was over, Patti said ‘I bet you thought I’d never found my way out of that jam.’ Someone shouted, ‘We hoped not.’ Lost in music. Gloria indeed.
There was more to come, the intensity and discomfort of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger’ and a joyful ‘Banga’ but nothing will ever match that extraordinary, astounding ‘Gloria.’ Saying she didn’t want to leave, Patti shouted at the end of the gig, ‘My Welsh blood is singing.’
So was ours.
A clip of Patti Smith’s performance at The Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay is available to watch here.
Adrian Masters has written a number of contributors for the Wales Arts Review website.