Review by Angela Bilancini, photos by Judie Vegh

Punk’s poet laureate, Patti Smith, performed at the State Theatre in Cleveland on Sunday night, March 12. She played the entirety of her 1975 debut, Horses. John Cale, who produced the album, once described Smith as “someone with an incredibly volatile mouth who could handle any situation” — a perfect summary of any Patti Smith show.

Listening to Horses for the first time is a kind of rite of passage in a art-punk-rock education.

I remember buying the CD when I was about 14 years old. The cover of the album was hung on the stage behind Smith at Sunday’s show — it showed an intense, nearly genderless woman with eyes looking straight at the viewer, a serious mouth, jacket flipped over her shoulder like she doesn’t care, hands artfully arranged, and yet there is a vulnerability to her, too. This is what drew me to the album in the first place, this photo of this singular woman. She’s not trying to look pretty or desirable or appealing. She’s just standing there, looking at you, being herself. I remember thinking, who is she?

It is striking how present the young, mouthy upstart from 1975 still is in the 70 year old who appeared onstage.

Smith remains a purposeful figure, swaggering around the stage like a teenager in menswear with her hair wild, singing powerfully and with a poet’s heart — the Polar Prize committee called her “Rimbaud with amps” in 2011. Her love for artists like Rimbaud, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, William Blake, and Allen Ginsberg is woven into the wordcraft on Horses, and in her books, 2010’s Just Kids and 2015’s M Train.

The band included original members guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with Smith’s son Jackson Smith on guitar and Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards.

When Horses reached the halfway point Sunday night, she smiled and intoned that it was time to “lift the arm of the turntable, flip the record to Side B, and place the needle back in the groove.”

Her singing built up to incantatory lyrical moments in “Birdland” and “Land:”, while “Elegie”, the closing track written in memory of Jimi Hendrix (and my favorite track on Horses), ended with a mournful litany: “Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.” It was a sweet and somber moment.

After Horses, she played later material: “Dancing Barefoot”, “Ghost Dance” (dedicated to Standing Rock protesters), “Citizen Ship”, “Because the Night”, “People Have the Power”, “Pissing In a River”, “Radio Ethiopia”, and as an encore, The Who’s “My Generation” — the bonus track from Horses. That track was recorded in Cleveland at the Agora in 1976 on her first tour in the area supporting the record. I was hoping for “Piss Factory”, her visceral proto-punk song about working in a baby buggy factory, but no such luck!

Smith was funny and fierce.

She went from quoting Bertolt Brecht to talking about kitchen backsplashes on the television show House Hunters, which led to the line, “I can cook. I’ve cut up a rabbit — that was in my savage days. Now I get those little chocolate-covered bunnies and I eat those.”

She also spit. Did you know Patti Smith spits onstage?

She claims that she started spitting early on in her career in response to sexist hecklers at her shows. There were no sexist hecklers Sunday, but there was more spitting than expected. Take it from Patti Smith, spitting to mark your territory gets people’s attention.

At the end of Sunday’s show, Smith said that “the guitar is the greatest weapon of my generation.” Then she growled, “What more do I have to say? Nothing — I’m-fucking-worn-out!” She proceeded to rip the strings off her guitar one by one.

She’s still as savage as she is sweet — she’ll sing a line of sublime poetry and then spit like a sailor. It was an honor to see it.

More pics from the concert in the slideshow below.

  • Patti Smith Live 2017