im Morrison’s ghost would’ve been torn down in Houston. His old band, at least two-thirds of ‘em, was playing a downtown venue while existentialist rocker Patti Smith held court a couple of blocks away. Like Morrison, Smith’s artistic career began with poetry. While the newly revamped Doors opened with the barnburner “Roadhouse Blues”, Smith came on stage all by herself to read a trio of poems, beginning with “The Divine Image” by William Blake. “...And all must love the human form,” she intoned, slightly altering his concluding words to: “Muslim, Christian, Jew—where mercy, love and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too.”
Smith’s appearance was in conjunction with a major retrospective of her visual art (now on display at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum through June 15) and she brought her four-man band down for a two-city tour of Texas (they played a more traditional rock show in Austin two nights earlier). After readings that paid tribute to proto-feminist Virginia Woolf (timely as Woolf had drowned on the same date 62 years earlier) and quoted an Allen Ginsberg anti-war rant (“I hear now declare the end of the war”), Smith and her band tore into an acoustic but blazing “Beneath The Southern Cross”, a modern hymn to peace in a world of adversity “where gods get lost.” Bassist Tony Shanahan’s ethereal backing vocals sublimely complemented Smith’s pristine singing on the inspirational number.
Old school fans were rewarded with a pair from 1975’s breakthrough debut Horses. First up was a campy “Redondo Beach”, introduced as a song about a place “where women love other women.” With drummer Jay Dee Daugherty providing a reggae beat, Smith playfully placed her hands on hips and offered a knowing wink. This feverish fun was followed by a remarkable “Birdland”, with Smith reading the narrative about an alien abduction from a book of her lyrics while Shanahan supplied a mysterious backdrop on his keyboard.
According to Smith, “archivists tell me I played here in 1979” when a different building known as the Music Hall occupied the same property. “We always mourn the passing of an old place,” she said, “but the acoustics here are great.” So great that the soft chirp of a cellular phone echoed throughout, prompting her quip: “There must be a doctor in the house.”
A cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” gave starboard guitarist Oliver Ray a chance to shine, and Smith the opportunity to remove her black jacket and loosen up with some dancing. She ended the song with a few drawn out “coo coo’s” before suddenly exiting the stage without explanation, and returned with her own joke about talking to Donald Rumsfeld on the phone.
Another early highlight was a charmingly retooled version of her single about the Chinese invasion of Tibet that resulted in the ouster of the Dalai Lama. The new version of “1959”, featuring Shanahan’s warm keys and angelic singing by Smith, is less ragged than the original souped-up tune, making for a tale that draws the listener in as if entering a foreign land in a dream state.
After half a dozen songs, the band traded their acoustic instruments for electric guitars and a parental warning from Smith, who had earlier heard a baby, that “my guitar’s kinda loud so you might want to take your infant outside” the theatre. At this point, the reverberating guitars of “25th Floor”, an ode to meeting her late husband in Detroit, claimed the hall.
During her signature song “Dancing Barefoot” Smith left the stage to greet audience members in person, strolling up an aisle and then walking along the front row, all the while smiling and greeting fans. She even performed her late-‘70s radio hit “Because The Night” with all the fury of someone truly happy to perform it.
Romance was replaced with grim reality in “Where Duty Calls”, her retelling of the terrorist attack on a Marine bunker in Beirut 20 years ago where hundreds lost their lives. More poignant was her dedication to 23-year-old peace activist Rachel Corey, who had been killed by a bulldozer on the Gaza Strip earlier in the month. “All mothers grieve alike,” Smith said, comparing Corey to the soldiers currently in battle in Iraq. “We should also mourn this young girl.” Then she played her beautiful meditation on the afterlife, “Wing”, in tribute to Corey (two nights earlier in Austin, the band had dedicated “Wild Leaves” to the activist).
Her populist anthem “People Have The Power” had a fervent minority standing up in the rows, but as always it was her version of “Gloria” that really brought the house down. Before the song was over, she was literally crawling across the stage in her retelling of the obsessive tale, before spitting out a change of heart, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins . . . why not mine?”
An encore of the landmark “Horses”, the brutal nightmare rock opera that allows the band, especially longtime ally and guitarist Lenny Kaye, to take off in all sorts of directions sonically capped the performance. By that time the crowd was on its feet, either dancing the watusi or seemingly ready to march.