With almost a half century of performances under her belt, Patti Smith still commands a stage. Whether she is screaming into a mic, spitting on the floor and forcing the crowd to their feet during her punk rock ballads, or painting a reflective mood as she spills out one of her poems, Smith keeps her willing audience under a spell.
The second night of her two-night run at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library was further evidence of her artistic power. Even with Flea, among the most famous and energetic faces of rock ‘n’ roll over the last 30 years, making a surprise appearance as the band’s bassist for the evening, the audience’s attention stayed steady on Smith.
Billed as an evening of words and music, Smith, an icon of the 1970s punk rock movement in New York City and a revered writer and poet, weaved her 18-track set between songs and poems, originals and covers. With Flea on bass, her son, Jackson, on lead guitar and longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan alternating between piano, guitar and bass, Smith gifted the audience with classic originals such as “Dancing Barefoot,” “Because the Night,” “Redondo Beach” and “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo.” She covered Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and riffed on the Beatles. During a mid-set bathroom break for Smith, Shanahan led the band on a Rolling Stones medley, in honor of the late drummer Charlie Watts.
Smith read original poetry with pieces like “An Ode to the Writer” and paid homage to local poetry icon Robinson Jeffers with a few of his selected poems, which she read while her band jammed in the background, eventually leading to a screaming crescendo. Jeffers would have been proud and maybe even blushed when Smith admitted, “When I was younger I had a crush on Robinson Jeffers.”
With books such as Just Kids and M Train, Smith the writer has always painted herself as someone unashamed of who she is, who loves her experiences and the intricate details that make them. In front of the mostly older crowd of 250 in Big Sur on Tuesday night, the honesty in that persona was clear.
“I don’t mind being uncool,” Smith told the crowd. “Because when you’ve lived as long as I have, you go through moments when you’re really cool, and other times when you’re really uncool. And then you’re cool again.”
Towards the end of the evening, when the band played “Because the Night,” dedicated to her son’s father, Fred “Sonic” Smith, the crowd was moved to rapture, shedding older bodies and white hair to reveal young, energetic souls, stomping the ground and punching the air as they screamed along. At times, it felt as though Flea, known for his off-the-wall on-stage energy, was trying to keep up with Smith.
For Smith, it was a successful “return” to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Smith and her band played the library’s first benefit concert back in 2004. As library director Magnus Toren tells it, Smith was scheduled to play the show at the library, which at the time was a still nascent music venue; however, when Toren received her team’s technical specs, he became overwhelmed and realized there was no way for the library to accommodate a Patti Smith show.
So, in some last-minute maneuvering, the show was relocated to Carmel’s Sunset Theater. Toren says the Sept. 6 and 7 shows were, in a way, both a return and debut for Smith.