Patti Smith opened her 2015 tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of her first album, the now-legendary Horses, in Paris at L’Olympia on October 20. Inside, the stage was bedecked with red and white roses, with a crown of alternating colors atop the bass drum skin, which read, “Patti Smith. Horses. 40th. 1975–2015.” The band would continue the celebratory theme by coming out dressed crisply in white dress shirts with black vests and ties, and then Patti herself took the stage in her usual uniform of black jacket and vest over Electric Lady T-shirt, dungarees, and black lace-up boots. She picked up the album liner for Horses and stepped up to the microphone. The audience burst into applause before she had a chance to perform anything more than that initial gesture. Patti flipped over the sleeve and began to read the poem that appears there, ending, “Charms, sweet angels — you have made me no longer afraid of death.”
With that, Tony Shanahan hit the opening notes to “Gloria” on the grand piano, and the energy in the venue went into the stratosphere. The sold-out audience of 2,000 sang loudly along with each and every word of the initial verse, and when the band reached the chorus, veering into Van Morrison territory, full speed ahead, the house lights came on. Anyone who wasn’t singing began doing so, and everyone who was singing sang louder. The general-admission floor of the theater was a bouncing (literally, the floor actually bounced) sea of arms and pogoing French people creating a minor riot in the first seven minutes of the concert.
And at the end of the song, Patti came to the front of the stage for that final “Jesus died for somebody’s sins” — huge grin — “but not mine,” before the band brought the tune to a crashing and final close. It was a tremendous opening to what would be a tremendous evening.
It was no coincidence that Patti Smith opened this tour in Paris, on Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday, at L’Olympia, the theater made famous by Édith Piaf. This is the country that has already made her a Commandeur in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an award granted for “significant contribution to the French cultural inheritance.” Smith sold out two additional nights at L’Olympia, and it’s easy to understand why.
The execution of the album performance was absolutely stellar. While Smith’s band — original members Lenny Kaye (guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) and newer cohorts Shanahan (bass, keyboards) and Jack Petrocelli (guitar, keys) — is always a tight ensemble, there’s usually some fluidity and looseness. But at L’Olympia, all the T’s were crossed and I’s dotted. Patti herself visibly directed the band more than usual, and the net result was a sharp, intense, focused ensemble that did every song justice. “Free Money” would be a particular exemplar of this; the multi-guitar front of Kaye and Petrocelli, anchored by Shanahan and Daugherty, drove the number to runaway-locomotive speed.
At the end of the song, Patti came back to the microphone, again carrying the album. She took the record out of the sleeve and said, “That was Side A. We take the record and we turn it over; we take the arm of the player and press it into the groove, and play Side B.” The added element of the audience’s foreknowledge of the setlist came to a head when those assembled took a deep collective breath as Patti came to the mic for the first line of “Land.” They were on their feet before she had a chance to say, “The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea.” And when the band reached the “Land of 1,000 Dances” portion, the energy was at twice the level it had been for “Gloria,” the crowd enthusiastically shouting, “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud” with zero irony. (Patti would also throw in a reference to the poet’s “The Drunken Boat” for good measure.)
“This is the last song on Horses,” Smith announced. “NO!” yelled someone in the crowd. The performer cocked one hand on her hip. “No. It’s just the last song on Horses,” she admonished, before providing an introduction to “Elegie,” the final track, dedicating it to her co-author, the late Allen Lanier (Blue Öyster Cult), adding that it was written for Jimi Hendrix, but that was 40 years ago, and encouraging the audience to think of the people in their lives whom they had lost.
Smith would go on to recite many of the names that were meaningful to her: James Marshall Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Jim Morrison. Brian Jones. Joe Strummer. All four Ramones (to great applause). Kurt Cobain. Jim Carroll. Lou Reed (more applause). Fred “Sonic” Smith — the loudest applause of all. There were tears visible at the corners of her eyes, by the end.
The musicians would come front and center for bows before moving into the back half of the set. “Privilege” was a chance for everyone to play a bit looser, but was still performed as tightly as it ever has been. “Beneath the Southern Cross” was prefaced by a special dedication to the birthday boy: “Tonight is the birthday of Arthur Rimbaud.” Loud applause. “Arthur likes to be sung to, like President Kennedy,” Smith said, before delivering an a cappella version of “Happy Birthday” in her best Marilyn Monroe voice, as the crowd gleefully joined in.
“Beneath the Southern Cross” (from Smith’s 1996 comeback album, Gone Again) represents the best of the second incarnation of the Patti Smith Group while maintaining a connection to the first. On record, the song is a lovely dirge; live, it is a chant and a hymn and a prayer circle with guitars. It doesn’t sound very punk, but it absolutely will kick your ass. And tonight, in the middle, Smith grabbed a piece of paper off the mic stand and began reciting “The Drunken Boat” as part of an improvisation that brought this particular performance into another realm. “Cross over, boy…cross over, king…cross over, Arthur…happy birthday.”
It takes a special kind of audience to repeatedly applaud a dead poet.
The Lenny Kaye solo spot tonight was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of “the greatest band to ever come out of New York City…the Velvet Underground.” A medley of “Rock & Roll,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and “White Light White Heat” was great fun, and if there’s a country that really, truly loves the VU, it’s France.
“Because the Night,” after the solo spot, was another huge sing-along and obvious favorite. And it says a lot about the night that the last number of the main set, “People Have the Power,” was actually the low point of the evening. It’s obviously still a particularly meaningful number for Smith, and she always has something to remind the audience about: Be free. Use your voice. Hold the people in charge accountable. It’s always a lovely sentiment to hold close while walking out of the building, but it had a lot to compete against in Paris.
Just when the crowd was wondering if this was it, as Smith strode the length of the stage, waving to the audience, the band suited up and charged into a very Patti Smith Group version of “My Generation.” Classic rock is still very much alive and well in Europe, and the floor was bouncing as hard as it did to “Gloria” at the start, as 2,000 French screamed every word back at the band. “Hope I live till I get old…and I’m FUCKING OLD,” she yelled. “I’M FUCKING OLD,” she yelled again, and the crowd cheered louder. Smith had her Stratocaster brought out during the instrumental break, and began working feedback out of it. “We are not dead…we can rise again…. We want the future, and the future is now,” she proclaimed.
“Behold the weapon of my generation,” she declared, holding the guitar aloft. “We don’t want your bombs. We don’t want your treaties. We want — ROCK ‘N’ ROLL,” she announced, her hair covering her face as she worked the whammy bar, one foot on the monitor, before pulling the strings off, one by one. “Are you ready? These are the chimes of freedom.” There was one string left. She held the guitar perpendicular, as if it were a bow. “This arrow of love goes out to you.” Visibly spent, Smith pulled the last string off. “Paris…je t’aime,” she said, smiling, before she kissed the guitar and left the stage.
In the métro after the show, a guy sang “My Generation” out of tune, his heavy Gallic accent echoing off the tiled walls. Two teenage girls wearing too much eyeliner and scuffed Doc Martens bounced down the stairs, showing each other the pictures of Patti on their iPhones. Clearly, this city will still be vibrating for a few days to come.