Patti Smith Prompts Star-Studded Crowd to Howl Along at KCRW Taping
To bark or not to bark? That was the question for the star-studded audience of 175 invitees who witnessed a mostly acoustic performance by Patti Smith and her band Wednesday night at a Santa Monica recording studio, which was sponsored and recorded for future broadcast by KCRW.
For the penultimate number, Smith sang the title track of her latest release, Banga, a literarily inspired song themed around Pontius Pilate’s dog. She and longtime musical partner Lenny Kaye broke into a series of barks and howls -- a far louder racket than the modest canine cacophony heard at the end of the album version. The crowd wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh, but they certainly weren’t going to risk offending the folk-punk priestess by joining in with their own woofing.
But it turned out crowd participation was what she was looking for. “That is the lamest pasty-faced crew of dogs I’ve ever heard,” she chided the audience. At that point, the crowd -- which included Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Tim Robbins, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Ellen Page -- felt free to join in with their own howling, be it inspired by Pilate, Ginsberg, or Rex back home.
You could hardly blame the attendees for their initial reticence, since Smith does not come off as the sort of veteran rocker who suffers fools or uninvited audience participation gladly. The nine-song set was broken up midway for a lengthy interview by KCRW DJ Anne Litt, and it was clear that Smith does not always even suffer highly flattering questions gladly. It wasn’t always easy to tell when she was being mock-prickly or prickly-prickly after she joked -- or half-joked -- about being talked into giving up the only day off on the band’s schedule for the station’s gig.
Litt talked about how she’d been reveling in the audiobook version of Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. (“Oh, so you’re one of the twenty,” Smith quipped, pointing out that the recording does run almost 10 hours.) “Luck and fate are two of the big themes that come up in the book,” Litt said. “I mean, I have never met William Burroughs or anyone of that stature at an Automat, myself. I just kept thinking, I don’t have that kind of fate.”
“Well, we’re here,” Smith responded. “What am I, a piece of s---?“ After the laughter and applause died down, Smith explained her choice of language: “I would have said chopped liver, but I’m not of Hebrew descent.”
In any case, her set was kosher enough for a crowd that reacted particularly warmly when Smith briefly waxed political in introducing a couple of songs. “Peaceable Kingdom,” “written for the parents of Rachel Corrie, a peacekeeper who lost her life on the Gaza Strip,” was also occasion to champion Pussy Riot and young women who are “not only marginalized but jailed” everywhere. “Our young people do not have the kind of community we were so lucky to have in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she lamented. “We should be supporting our youth -- the new guard -- (and) there for them so much more than we are.” Though rooted in international turmoil, her “lions and lambs” peace anthem had the loveliest lilt of any of the numbers she performed Wednesday, thanks in large part to the warm electric piano parts played by Tony Shanahan, taking a break from his usual bass duties.
This live version of 2004’s “Peaceable Kingdom” ended with a coda lifting the “redeem the work of fools” chorus from her 1988 hit “People Have the Power,” which showed up a few numbers later in its entirety, as her traditional set-closer. Smith prefaced it with an earnest get-out-the-vote speech -- which KCRW may or may not keep when the station airs the show on “Morning Becomes Eclectic” November 14, a week after the election. Perhaps alluding to a reverence for Ralph Nader that she expressed in her interview with Litt, Smith derided the belief that third-party candidates have derailed any candidacies and said that elections are lost because “people don’t get out and f---ing vote!” She told the crowd to cast a ballot “whoever you vote for” -- magnanimously allowing for the possibility that, say, Tim Robbins might be going for Romney this time -- but finally did invoke Obama’s name over the opening bars.
Miraculously, “People Have the Power” holds up, 24 years later… holds up better than its obvious model, John Lennon’s “Power to the People,” in fact. And the hootenanny-style multiple-acoustic-guitar attack in this setting only lent it greater power, if anything. Still, there’s no escaping that Smith’s own personal power is at its greatest when she’s getting shamanistic, as opposed to being a talking head (not to be confused with being a Talking Head).
The three songs from Banga Smith sang to start the show were potent enough, especially “April Fool,” as mainstream-sounding a single as she’s put out since “Because the Night.” But the set’s highlights dated a bit further back: “Beneath the Southern Cross” built to a frenzied climax as Jay Dee Daugherty pounded the kettle drums with mallets and Smith met the crescendo with an “Arise!” incantation. “Ghost Dance” had another audience participation ending, with Smith shimmying her hands and likewise encouraging the crowd to “Shake out the blues… shake it out.”
The most personal of the new songs was “Maria,” a tribute to the late actress Maria Schneider, whom Smith said she met in L.A. in the ‘70s -- “in a white shirt and black tie, just like me. Or I was like her.” After half-apologizing for the rare indulgence in nostalgia, Smith sang, “We didn’t know the precariousness of our young powers,” in a song that’s basically the micro-musical equivalent of Just Kids.
And “Banga”? It wasn’t all just about the barking. “Night is a mongrel,” she intoned after the woofing died down, more dramatically than on the album version. “Believe or explode.” Most of the 175 attendees were fully prepared to do both.
The show was part of a series KCRW began taping before live audiences at Bob Clearmountain’s studio in April 2010, and they’re all archived on video as well as audio at www.kcrw.com/music/berkeley-street-sessions. Smith’s set will be the exception to the “video” part, as she requested the station only make an audio recording of the event. If you listen in after it goes up Nov. 14, you’ll just have to imagine the gesticulating and jazz hands, but those incantations should come through just fine.
Beneath the Southern Cross
Pissing in a River
People Have the Power