Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Live review: Patti Smith, Serpentine Sessions, Hyde Park, London

The Beatles, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan and David Bowie are generally regarded as the most influnetial musical artists of the Twentieth century.

There are particular characteristics that they share. Each challenged the prevading musically orthadoxy at the time and all sought to reinvent themselves constantly to stay one step ahead of the pretenders. They were also all men.

One wonders which female artists deserve to be considered within this elite. Both Bjork and Kate Bush would have their advocates as would Nina Simone, but for me the strongest case can be made for Patti Smith. This was a New York poet who, upon seeing Bob Dylan, set her lyrics to music and provided a template for punk in the process. During a career of 35 years she has constantly reinvented herself, retained a loyal fanbase and, in recent years at least, has arguably entered the rock aristocracy.

I felt priveledged therefore to be able to finally see her live. The Serpentine sessions at Hyde park are clearly an attempt to squeeze more cash out of the set up for Hyde Park Calling the previous week and if i'm honest the post-work vibe failed to create any real festival atmosphere. Thankfully the crowd were up for a bit of hero worship from the off and Ms Smith and the band were equally up for it.

Regardless of her enthusiastic welcome she felt the need to play two tracks from her legendary debut Horses within the first handful of songs - dedicating Redondo beach to Morrissey who was apparently backstage. The irony of her dedicating what is essentially a reggae tune to the ex-Smiths frontman (who notoriously claimed he loathed the genre) wasn't lost on me. What was clear from the outset was that her voice is as strong as it ever was, her phrasing ensured that we could hear every word and when the lyrics are as strong as hers this is an absolute pleasure to behold.

Another thing that soon becomes apparent is that she maintains a political edge - referencing current affairs throughout the set in order to breath new life into old songs and simply to make the audience think about what is going on in the world. She speaks about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak , Price Charles' living costs and most notably the evils of plastic surgery and botox in the introduction to a frenetic Horses late in the set. This might sound a bit 'serious' for what is essentially an open air gig but its never overbearing and simply highlights what a unique individual she is.

Halfway through the set she hands over to her right hand man, guitarist Lenny Kaye who leads a punk cover of a Jim Caroll poem. This is a particular highlight with its life affirming lyrics and reiterates what a great band she has behind her. Less successful perhaps are a couple of covers - Play With Fire and Perfect Day. The latter in particular is spoiled by lack of rehearsal (to be fair, this is the first night of the tour) as Patti twice manages to miss her cue.

The final third of the set is predictably chock a block with classics - Because the Night, Horses and the inevitable closer Gloria pretty much take the roof off the tent and 3000 people trudge happily home.

I've seen a number of so called legends in recent years. Some (Dylan, Stevie Wonder) were immensly dissapointing, others (McCartney, Bowie)provided an excellent nostalgia-fest but none of this generation seem as relevant and still capable of greatness as Patti Smith. If you get the chance get to see her I suggest you do so for she is a truly inspirational and life affirming being and what other rock star can you say that about?

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