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Patti Smith @ Twilight Dance Series, Santa Monica Pier, 8/16/07:

Although the coastal town she referenced is roughly a half-hour drive south of the Santa Monica Pier, Patti Smith’s choice to open this edition of the Twilight Dance Series with “Redondo Beach,” from her 1974 debut album Horses, was near-perfect.  The maudlin early ’60s-style pop song with the reggae beat mixed with the scents of saltwater and kettle corn, as Smith commanded the seaside stage with arms gliding alongside the ocean breeze. Despite the strength of her ties to the East Coast and the fact that she was wearing a black blazer on a rather balmy evening, Smith was an impeccable choice for the Pier’s Thursday night concerts. 

As an artist, Smith has spent decades on the cutting edge. Her gravelly delivery of poetry often imbued with rough language sidled up comfortably against a garage rock score that was commercially out-of-sync, yet critically adored, in the 1970s.  She is part of the league of New York musicians who spawned punk rock and is the woman who inspired two generations of young girls to believe that you didn’t have to look or sound a certain way to be rock and roll.  On stage, though, Smith was humble, taking the time to pause between songs to wave to the large crowd of rockers who had only slightly reformed over the years and those who made no attempt to bury a rebellious past.  She also conveyed an almost wide-eyed awe for the beachfront scenery, periodically working images of a moonlit California coast into her performance.

She is a writer of unparalleled ability, but Smith relied less on her original pieces at this performance. As the tour coincides with the release of her covers album, Twelve, much of Smith’s set relied on other people’s music.  While this might have left longtime fans with a list of songs they wished they heard, the slew of cover versions did not disappoint the audience.  Perhaps because of her skills as both a poet and a musician, Smith has an unusual knack for reinterpreting well-known songs.  Smith seemingly approaches covers like a music journalist would, searching for some underlying meaning in a song or a new sense of relevance and brings that aspect to the crowd.  In her hands, The Rolling Stones’ decades-old number “Gimme Shelter” sounded like it belonged to this year, perhaps reflective of a world grown weary from war.  Similarly, her rendition of Nirvana’s breakthrough hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was rooted in frustration rather than apathy.

The highlight of the cover songs, and one of the brightest points of the show, was Smith’s take on Jefferson Airplane’s signature piece “White Rabbit.”  She opened with an anecdote about staring at a palm tree at six in the morning and running into Grace Slick, relating the story with the cadence of a spoken word performance, slowly building to a frantic climax where she all-but-screamed “Grace, thank you for helping us transform.”  To watch Smith perform Slick’s vocals with all the gusto of a lifelong fan, but without any apparent ambition of channeling the song’s originator, was ravishing. 

This was the final night of Smith’s national tour and the band seemed to bring out big hits and bigger collaborators for the performance.  In addition to her longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye and the rest of her band, Smith was joined by such high-profile artists as guitarist Doug Pettibone, who backs Lucinda Williams, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.  Although this was an enjoyable aspect of the show, it almost seemed unnecessary.  Like her predecessor Slick, Smith has the power to transform listeners, and that much was obvious by the concert’s end.

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