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Patti Smith and the band rock with electricity at the Salt Shed

Add another achievement to Patti Smith’s incredible legacy. The poet-singer performed a two-hour concert at a well-deservedly packed Salt Hut on Wednesday, two weeks after falling ill, being hospitalized and canceling appointments in Italy, where she remained “briefly under emergency observation” for an undisclosed health condition . will be remembered for years to come.

While Smith is no stranger to standout performances, his outstanding performance at the former Morton Salt facility has emerged as something of a legend. This was the kind of event where those lucky enough to witness it proudly boasted that they were there, while the kidnappers lied about their attendance. Overshadowing their last local appearances, which included a gig at the Metro in 2022 and a storm-shortened engagement in Evanston in 2021, Smith and his crack band have ignited a fire of energy, passion and determination that cannot be denied.

They rejoiced, they pleaded, they warned, they loved, they hoped, they dreamed, and they instructed. They celebrated longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye’s 77th birthday with cake and candles. They mourned recently deceased friends and long-dead heroes, addressing losses not with sadness but through uplifting inspiration and tender consolation. They joked with each other, admitted to small mistakes, swapped tools, and resisted the urge to follow road maps.

Playing with emotion, the quintet has traversed everything from smoky R&B and garage rock to punk, psychedelia and raga. The band likewise stayed away from embellishments, with stark visual elements (standard lighting and a single screen displaying one static image per song) directing attention to the music. Smith, an example of understated cool in his sports jacket, vest, T-shirt and boots, with his silver-grey hair falling on his shoulders, was at the head of everything. And how.

Approaching his 77th birthday this Saturday, the Chicago-born pioneer remains an active force on the scene; in this field, before taking a long break in the early 1980s to start a family, and has excelled ever since. The sudden death of her husband, former MC5 member Fred “Sonic” Smith, in 1994 caused her to change course.

Returning from Michigan to his old haunts in New York City, Smith reemerged into the public eye in full force. While releasing five albums in a dozen years, he found time for collaborations, tours, art exhibitions and conferences. Before his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, the singer frequently heard his name mentioned by a then-new wave of musicians who cited him as a primary inspiration.

Smith, who last released a new studio LP in 2012, has spent much of the last two decades focusing on his first love: the written word. Her remarkable memoir, “Just Kids,” won the National Nonfiction Book Award in 2010. Its follow-up, “M Train,” received similar praise and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album. A subsequent travelogue (“Year of the Monkey”) and visual diary (“A Book of Days”) extended Smith’s tenure as a bestselling author.

As expected in Salt Shed, Smith painted vivid pictures, evoking powerful imagery and drawing detailed characters with verse. By inserting short poems or abbreviated lyrics from other songs at the beginning of several issues, she soon served as a window into the narratives at hand. In Smith’s universe, the “hot liquors of the Milky Way” coexist with ships flying in the clouds, vagabonds and clowns. Even reading an aria by Maria Callas alone, in summary, was heartbreaking with its beauty and taste.

Descriptive language, extending to a colorful account of his birth in this city on a night when a blizzard paralyzed transportation, represented one of the many professional tools Smith called upon at will. His body language was equally effective, almost rivaling the pristine quality of his voice in terms of defying boundaries. Both traits have bypassed the natural decline that often accompanies older age.

Fully invested in each moment, Smith moved without restraint. She jumped, crouched, walked, danced and gestured. His legs buckled and shook; their knees literally collided. Pumping, circling, pointing, waving, yawning, crossing, touching: the singer’s arms became mobile extensions of her soul.

Smith performed similar acrobatics vocally. She stayed within her traditional range (mid range and low) and switched between them effortlessly, singing clearly and expressively. Tonally, Smith’s sound was virtually indistinguishable from the up-and-coming upstart who had made his first album nearly 50 years earlier. He still has the throat and the temperament, the swagger and the sensuality, the ability to default to pure emotion.

These howls, groans, chants, growls, curses and murmurs both called and warned. During the stunning 20-minute pairing of “Land” and “Gloria,” Smith scolded a member of the audience for throwing an ice cube at him. The feisty rebuke included a quick lesson on climate change as well as a threat that appeared to have been pulled straight from the streets.

Fans watch Patti Smith and her band perform at Salt Shed on December 27, 2023.

And to think Smith has been feeling “some anxiety” due to the bad weather lately. A more accurate self-assessment of his condition – “Oh, I’m fine,” he said with a smile – came as a spontaneous response to a question. These words, too, failed to convey the extraordinary urgency, conviction and fearlessness with which he approached his work.

Activist, mother, dreamer, rebel, patriot, mystic, protester, motivator, believer, savior: Smith took on these and other roles during an incredibly youthful performance brimming with electricity. With her son Jackson on guitar, she savored the heartfelt solidarity of “Because the Night,” dedicated to her forever “boyfriend,” the late Fred Smith, and the endless possibilities swirling in the fantasies of a struggling couple with a breathless rendition. “Free Money.”

It is often difficult to maintain such enthusiasm and seriousness throughout a show; Demonstrating keen awareness and cerebral insight presents another set of challenges. Smith and his friends adhered strictly to all these qualities. In memory of trailblazing artists who died in 2023, they honored Tom Verlaine (a sparkling “Guiding Light”), co-founder of Television and contemporary of the 70s CBGB scene; uncompromising singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor (a hypnotic “Dancing Barefoot”); and Irish singer Shane MacGowan (a ramshackle “Dirty Old Town” led by bassist Tony Shanahan).

Kaye also took the mic and helped Smith take a breather with a fitting cover. Changing the song’s original verses to reflect his own biographical experiences, the seventy-year-old artist covered Culture’s roots reggae hit “Two Sevens Clash” with a masterful blend of humor and seriousness.

Patti Smith performs at the Salt Shed on December 27, 2023.

The consequences of gravity and indifference shaped Smith’s most profound and primitive examples. As the hottest year in history draws to a close and war continues across the world, their thoughts turn to the planet, survival and destruction. He gave a new twist to his mystery-filled version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” drawing on the potential meaning of its title and then injecting an original verse in which a paradise of birds, fish and children indulges in poisons and guns. and bombs. “How could we stand by and watch this? [expletive] “Being?” Smith shouted. The consequences of this and its obvious connections to today’s conditions left no one safe to hide.

He invoked Dylan again and quoted his condemnatory “Warmasters,” saying it was the beginning of the soft “Peaceful Kingdom,” which was considered a fading aspiration rather than a certainty. Refusing to stand by in the midst of global suffering and realizing all that is at stake, Smith departs near the end of the meditative elegy “Under the Southern Cross.”

The feisty and ferocious vocalist encouraged people to stand up to oil companies and governments that trample land, revoke rights and desecrate the planet. Advocating joy, peace and unity – and encouraging industry and denouncing frontiers – he fought for independence and democracy as if his and our lives depended on it.

“The future is now!” Smith explained. Amen brother.

Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.

Patti Smith’s setlist at the Salt Shed on December 27:

“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (Byrds cover)

“Ghost Dance”

“free money”

“Guiding Light” (Television cover)

“All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan cover)

“Work” (Charlotte Day Wilson cover)

“Nine”

“Because of the night”

“Happy Birthday” (traditional)

“The Clash of Two Sevens” (Culture cover)

“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

“Dancing Barefoot”

“Peaceful Kingdom” / “Power in the Hands of the People” (snippet)

“Peeing in the river”

“Under the Southern Cross”

“Land” / “Gloria”

Again

“People have power”

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