Patti Smith—a recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—takes the stage to the hum of passing cars. Confectioner’s sugar sticks to my left leg, and the sun beats down on my face with the zeal of an interrogator’s spotlight. Thirty feet away, a ventriloquist is entertaining a crowd of children (prior to Smith’s mid-afternoon performance, a belly dancer cavorted around the same small stage where she stands).
Welcome to the first annual Philadelphia Book Festival—a free two-day event that seems to feature more food stalls than fiction writers. Intended as a celebration of all things reading, writing, and creativity in the greater Philadelphia area, the festival encompasses lectures, book signings, and a street fair—all in or around the city’s main library branch.
Originally slated to read poetry, Smith changes her plans when she sees the positioning of the outdoor stage (next to the Ben Franklin Parkway and atop of the Vine Street Expressway—two of Philly’s main thoroughfares). “We’ll do some songs instead,” she says, welcoming her son, Jackson, onstage as her acoustic accompaniment.
Many musicians would be miffed at the State Fair-style stage area, with sounds leaking in from other parts of the festival—as well as traffic—and fans feasting on funnel cake (hence the sugar-coated trousers) while awaiting her arrival. Smith isn’t fazed; she did, after all, start her career as a street performer in Paris. Showing her brass, she greets the honking car horns with a euphoric “yeah!”
Emphatically poetic and fiercely political, the Patti Smith we are privy to today is surprisingly playful. She compares the surroundings to those of a racetrack, toys with the sound engineer, and laughs out loud during her first song (“Grateful”) when a crowd member in crazy sunglasses distracts her. Her laissez fair attitude is pushed further when she brings local singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gaines onto the stage, a man whom Smith met only a few hours earlier: “He had an instrument sticking out of his bag,” she explains. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know one another.”
The instrument in question is a mandolin, and Gaines soon lends his nimble picking to a cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” After some deliberation, it’s announced that Gaines will stick around for the rest of the short set, which swings its way through classics, calls to arms, and a few choice covers from her new album, 12. This last bit shouldn’t surprise since Smith has never been averse to covers; several have shown up on her albums over time. Her debut, Horses, opens with her own take on Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and since then, she’s run the gamut—from the jangle pop of the Byrd’s “So You Want to Be (a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” to Bob Dylan’s “The Wicked Messenger.” Today, in front of Philadelphia’s majestic main library, Smith adopts Dylan’s nasally sneer for Velvet Underground-styled dirge “Beneath the Southern Cross,” which exposes her powerful voice in a mantra-styled cadence. In addition to her aforementioned take on Neil Young, we’re also treated to a run through the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” which involves a hefty level of intricate guitar playing and interplay—especially for two people that only just met. Unfortunately though, there’s no reading of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” a tune which also features on 12.
Despite the stifling weather, Smith wears the same outfit—jeans, shirt, and blazer—that found its way onto the iconic cover of Horses. Even at 61, she’s only a dye job away from recapturing that austere pose. Discarding her guitar duties to Gaines, Smith plays to the small but swelling crowd, using both hands to gesticulate her way through “People Have the Power” and imploring everyone to sing the chorus to the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Because the Night.” During the later, she sticks the microphone stand down to the first few rows for them to bellow out the lascivious lyrics. She doesn’t forget why she’s here, though, giving props to the library and offering up the anthemic “People Have the Power” as a poetic substitute for the missing iambic pentameters.
“This is our last song,” says Smith, before the powerful PJ Harvey-styled “My Blakean Year,” taken from 2004’s Trampin’. “We have a train to catch.” Of course she does. Patti Smith may reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she’s comfortable playing anywhere.