Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 3/4/2015
published: 19 /
Lisa Torem at Chicago's Old Town School watches Patti Smith celebrate spring through readings of original and classic poetry and an assortment of her greatest hits
The second of three performances was entitled 'Spring Awakening' and leave it to Patti Smith to carry out such a theme with unique style. As soon as she appeared on stage, she was warmly greeted by wall-to-wall people of all ages. She addressed the fact that it was a weekend that included Easter and Passover, but that, on a more personal note, this night also marked the anniversary of the death of a few people dear to her. Her references provided a profound sense of clarity through out the night. She implied that if you couldn’t be with your own family on this auspicious weekend, she would be ecstatic to share hers.
What made the evening just as special was that she was performing with her adult children, pianist/arranger Jesse Smith, lead guitarist Jackson Smith as well as all around rhythm guitarist/arranger and vocalist Tony Shanahan. It was the latter who chimed in, that after gruelling weather in New York, he was desperate for spring.
Smith injected her mostly original set with readings of Shakespearean sonnets and the poem, 'Wind Sings Welcome’ by “city of big shoulders” penner Carl Sandburg, but also dished out self-deprecating comments and wry social commentary when she wasn’t hypnotizing us with fierce and delicate prose, or commanding the stage with dramatic gestures.
“I was a wing in heaven blue/Soared over the ocean,” she sang first, with chilling contralto. ‘Wing’ was warm and embracing. The band did an excellent job combining their energies and framing Smith’s natural gift for nuance. In the first of several literary surprises, she read Shakespearean Sonnet 98, using crisp, private school pronunciation. Then she dedicated ‘April Fool’ to muso friend Tom Verlaine.
Picking up the pace, she danced through quirky ‘Space Monkey’ and read the lovely poem ‘Art in Heaven’. The sparse, but haunting ‘Dancing Barefoot’ followed. The surreal, dirge-like accompaniment allowed her the luxury to interpret the story line viscerally. Smith’s intense gaze reached to the balcony. An old favorite ‘My Blakean Years’ showcased her passion for metaphor. But the evening also allowed for the showcasing of virtuosity. Shanahan delivered the goods when finger picking their fine arrangement of George Harrison cover ‘Here Comes the Sun’.
Smith shared a folksy story about surfing the net for “holiday music” and discovering 'The Stable Song'—“as you can see, I have lots of tech savvy,” she chided. This illuminating ballad by Gregory Alan Isakov was a terrific find, but she took her time, foreshadowing it with some powerful, spoken word images. The hush in the room returned when Smith recited Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Light Exists in Spring’ (812).
The magic of the night owed much to Smith’s keen stage comfort and sensitivity to her audience. From the husky rendition of ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ to the eerie/fantastical vocal punch of ‘Summer Cannibals’ to the encores: soulful ballad, ‘Pissing in a River’, the post-punk, participatory ‘Banga’ to the rousing political ‘People have the Power’ to her commercial hit ‘Because the Night’ featured in the film, 'Streets of Fire', Smith’s youthful spirit flowed.
But her relationship with the band members was also noteworthy. You couldn’t help but notice the sensitive mother/daughter dynamic as Jesse graced the grand piano with poise and elegance; she’s a natural arranger with a light touch and appreciation of melody. Whether Smith recited her own descriptive poetry from 'Woolgathering', where a spirited photo of a younger Jesse appeared, or launched into heated song, Jesse had her back. Smith joked that the only way she could “see her children” was to go on tour with them. She flashed more than one crooked smile at son Jackson, as they bantered about the improvised set list or as he stretched out an expressive electric solo.
So the night flowed as promised: an awakening of spring, an awakening of the senses and an ode to the poets and songwriters who also yearned for renewal. And Smith, who spent some of her cherished childhood in Chicago’s Logan Square, reminisced about beloved greasy spoons like Jimmy’s Grill, which, according to a young man in the audience, recently and sadly shut down before Smith could return to request a short order.
And on my recent visit to New York, inspired by Smith’s return to the past, I looked for her counter culture dig, The Chelsea Hotel, where she and photographer/visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe scraped together coins for a Coney Island hot dog, made futurist art and rubbed elbows with the likes of Warhol.
Well, that, too, is gone, replaced by a contemporary boutique hotel. The friendly desk clerk looked at me curiously when I inquired about Smith and her acquaintances. Still, the reception area pays tribute to a sacred past, shelves are littered with vinyl records and the focal point is a vintage stereo.
Spring means change, for better or worse, and Patti Smith and her band left us with a feeling of hopefulness, an awe-inspiring appreciation for the classics and an entitled sense of community. She tied it up with the still dramatic and heartfelt hook from her most commercial hit, “because the night belongs to us.” It did, Patti, it did.
Photos by Philamonjaro