IN CONCERT: Patti Has The Power

At the cusp of International Women’s Day weekend, Patti Smith and Her Band brought the Mouse House down with a fearless and inspired performance this past Friday night at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall

Patti Smith tour poster 2020 / Remix by Ron Hart

Friday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Patti Smith delivered the tonic that I – and apparently, judging by their ovation, the more than 2,000 people at the soldout event — needed.

Performing as part of Herbie Hancock’s inspirational Power to the People series, Smith opened with her song that rephrases that John Lennon title, “People Have the Power.” Cowritten with husband Fred Sonic Smith in 1986 while they were living in Detroit, it has always been one of my favorite of her songs, anthemic evidence of the singer’s rock’n’roll heart that is too often overlooked by pundits who mistake her for New York cultural elite. The populist lyrics and singalong refrain offer a mystic shoutout to democratic vistas, and this week – this year, this decade, this extinction time – “People Have the Power” felt more timely than ever, as a reminder not necessarily of recent events, but of what the constitution is supposed to mean to us. In case anyone were to miss its call to voice, and vote, she recited the lyrics, using, as ever, her expressive artist’s hands as batons. She’s had a dream, “of an aspect bright and fair,” and  waking, she’s committing its vision to us, the people — we have the power: “We can turn the world around/ We can turn the earth’s revolution.”

Poet, punk, beatnik, hippie – in her seventh heaven/decade, Patti has turned into a protest singer. She threaded topical songs throughout the two-hour concert, beginning with a directly feminist statement: Pointing out that it was Women’s History Month, she said, “As a girl, I thought, one fucking month!?” Then she launched into “Dancing Barefoot,” hitting the repeated mantra of “she” hard, so for the first time I heard the song not as a celebration of a dervish but as a salute to the feminine divine. She described “Fuji-San,” from 2012’s Banga, and a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” as containing important messages about a world dying from human pollution. She blew the dust off of the immigration ballad “Citizen Ship,” a song from 1979’s Wave. In a moving introduction, she explained how she and Patti Smith Group bassist Ivan Kral, who died February 2, wrote it in response to an incident when Kral, a “stateless” refugee from Czechoslovakia, was pulled over for a traffic violation and subsequently stripped, chained, and detained. She updated “Land/Horses” to be a statement about the “debris” left of her generation’s dreams, and the need to “use our voices,” and to “vote.” 

Patti Smith 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

Despite the urgent political theme of the evening, Smith was joyous and hilarious. Or perhaps, it was the clarity of her calling that illuminated her. I first interviewed Patti in 1995, when she was in the midst of processing the deaths of Fred, her bestie Robert Mapplethorpe, her keyboardist Richard Sohl, and her brother Todd, among others, and there was a heaviness to her then, understandably. Friday, she was surrounded by loved ones. All these decades later, she still plays with the surviving members of her original group, the great guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty – how many other artists have shown such devotion and loyalty to their collaborators? Bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan has been with her since ‘96, when she first returned to performing, and he is the solid rock she turned to every time she forgot what she was singing or doing Friday  – which was often. Son Jackson played guitar all evening and daughter Jesse came out for piano toward the end. It was a family affair.

This was Smith’s first performance at Frank Gehry’s audio jewel, and she was clearly nervous. The first time she forgot the words, she turned it into a joke about her most famous public gaffe: “Well I’m not performing at the Nobel Prize ceremony this year, so I had to fuck up somewhere.” A few more gaffes later, she pointed out the importance of messing up as many times as possible when your children are present. Her kids laughed patiently. When Patti Smith is your mom, you’re probably a pretty tolerant human being. 


VIDEO: Patti Smith on The Tonight Show

Forgive a septuagenarian her senior moments. Smith’s long hair is the color of bone and she complained a couple times she was hyperventilating. But her voice was a golden marvel, hitting every note with a rich, vibrating tone. I never thought I would ever suggest that another old rocker record an album of pop standards, but I would die to hear Patti sing Ella, Frank, Gershwin, Porter, etc. 

The evening ended where it began: with “People Have the Power,” this time as a musical encore with the full band and the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles as backing choir. The audience stood and sang along. After a week of divisive political battles, during a time when people are being told not only to shun strangers but not to touch the people you know, or even your own face, Patti led us all through the song’s affirmation of human glory. 

Even when that was over, the silver-haired mother of Jesse and Jackson — and the mother of all of us who became writers, or musicians, or photographers, or activists, or just better people, because her music called to us – offered us her best matronly advice: To not give into the disease of stress but instead use our voices, and to live. 


VIDEO: Patti Smith and Her Band performing “People Have The Power” at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, CA 3/6/20

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Evelyn McDonnell

Evelyn McDonnell is the editor of Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and several other books. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is the director of the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University.

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