When the publicist for City Winery wrote to me and said Patti Smith would be playing live there on Friday night, would I like to come? I responded: Yes, shall I come now?
I have not been to a live music in 13 months since the Allman Brothers Family Band Reunion at Madison Square Garden. Time just stopped after that.
And in that time, City Winery moved from Varick Street in West Soho to 16th Street and the West Side Highway, on a Pier below Chelsea Piers in a spot you would never have considered habitable.
But there is it, shiny and new, dazzling, really, a new City Winery replacing the one evicted from Varick Street by Disney/ABC, and also standing in for the recently departed nearby Highline Ballroom. It’s got a gorgeous concert hall, a separate restaurant on the water, all kinds of private nooks and crannies, and lots of wine.
The new City Winery opened briefly last year, then had to close again. This week it re-opened with a selection of musical performers. But Patti Smith? She is royalty, no? They call musical acts “artists” but she is an actual artist: rocker, poet, memoirist, essayist. Patti transcends most genres.
And there she was on the new City Winery stage with her son, Jackson Smith, and multi-talented Tony Shanahan. Just the three of them. Shanahan plays bass guitar, upright bass, piano, and sings. Jackson, whose father was the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, is astonishing guitarist. He makes the instrument sing. And Patti is, well, everything.
This trio played a gig in March, she said, at the Brooklyn Museum, but that wasn’t on a stage, “it was on the floor.” A year had passed before that, when they played the Fillmore West in San Francisco. That was their last show. So here they were, in front a socially distant crowd, in a soaring, gorgeous venue made of what looked like woven wood, or a very expensive basket. The sound was perfection, too. even from the balcony, where the press is sprinkled behind a low plexiglass buffer.
The show was winning because it was so ad hoc and loose. Patti recently turned 74, she says, but you’d never know it from her lithe movements on stage, and her mellifluous voice that seems richer and more textured than ever. It’s hard to remember that she was once considered “punk.” She is anything but that. Her music is bathed in melodies and hooks that are actually quite sweet, a counterpoint to her trenchant lyrics.
There was talk of her late comrades, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard. There was a 200th birthday reading of a Beaudelaire poem, “Be Drunk.” There were the hits, from 1978, “Because the Night” and “Dancing Barefoot,” rendered in a stripped down fashion, more recent songs that should be classics, like “Grateful” and “April Fool.” There were also a couple of covers that should be recorded: Stevie Wonder’s “Blame it on the Sun,” and two by Bob Dylan including “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “One Too Many Mornings.”
(And here’s a little scoop: Patti, who famously forgot some Dylan lyrics when she sang a tribute to him for the Nobel Prize, says she’s participating in an 80th birthday salute to Bob next month.)
The show ended with a song dedicated to all the people we’ve lost, called “Ballad of the Southern Cross.” (I swear I had visions of Tom Verlaine.) And then “People Got the Power,” which brought fists raised in the air from the separated tables and a standing ovation. What a way to come back to life after a year in purgatory. (Patti’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, joined in on the piano.)
The Patti Smith Trio plays again tonight, Saturday night. If you’re vaccinated and fascinated, go to 16th St. and the West Side Highway and beg the nice people with temperature gizmos to let you in. You will almost feel normal. Then send Clive Davis a thank you note on Facebook for signing Patti Smith in 1975 to Arista Records. (PS They each deserve Kennedy Center Honors.)
PS It was great to see an actual old friend, Lynne Volkman, one of rock and roll’s unsung heroes who worked for Whitney Houston faithfully for her whole career and still toils for her estate. She is the genuine article in rock music. a living legend. Whitney loved her, too. I am happy to say we hugged since we’ve had all our shots.
One last aside: I did forget to mention that the trio played one of my favorite songs, “Peaceable Kingdom.” I’ll add it below.
Photo c2021 Showbiz411 by Mark Friedman