Patti Smith Leaves It All on the Stage at the Wiltern

Patti Smith and Her Band
The Wiltern
January 9, 2016

Full disclosure: I am not a Patti Smith expert or mega fan, but when you’re presented with a last minute chance to witness a legend in your own backyard, you throw on your freshest t-shirt and get your ass up the 405 despite the threat of traffic or El Niño getting in your way.

As a seasoned musician and music fan, walking into a sold out Patti Smith show in a classic venue such as the Wiltern not knowing what to expect is a bit of a rush. Obviously I have heard her music; I know the hits and some of the recent controversy surrounding a questionably written anthem due for a 21st century revision. But knowing you’re about to witness something iconic with fresh eyes is exhilarating. Given the impact of her catalog, I came with a museum mentality, ready to take it in with a critically open mind. Unlike me, most attendees showed up very familiar with Smith’s musical and literary legacy, many fully prepared for a religious experience. People all around the theater reflected on Smith’s influence on their lives, from the greying revolutionaries and poets in the lobby to the queer women in front of me waiting on $15 red wine sippy cups, to a music journalist who emphasized how her entire life’s trajectory was changed after seeing Smith perform at the final CBGB’s show in 2006. Over the last 4 decades Patti Smith has served as a muse, an inspiration, and an idol to a menagerie of fans who waited in anticipation Saturday night as the 69 year-old wordsmith prepared to perform her prolific release Horses in its entirety on the last night of the long running Horses 40th Anniversary tour. 

As I ascended the steep vintage red steps to my 3rd from last row mezzanine seat, Smith and her band took the Wiltern stage, which lit up with lights and raucous applause from a sold out crowd. Smith opened the night performing gritty slam poetry before kicking down the sonic doors with Horses opening track “Gloria.” The performance was fit for a closing encore, both the band and fans brimming with electricity. They moved through the entire album track by track with Smith occasionally using a physical copy of the record insert as a reference sheet. After “Free Money,” Smith invoked the visual of listening at home, encouraging the crowd to “lift the arm,” flip the vinyl, and gently “press the needle into the groove” and wait through the hiss and pop that only wax can romanticize for Side B of Horses.

Smith’s ability to stand in her power was intoxicating as she moved through the remainder of the album. Her literary influence was strong, appearing intermittently possessed by the spirit of Alan Ginsberg, especially while performing a 16-minute version of “Land” retooled for a 21st century Los Angeles audience. The lyrics changed to look back on 40 years of art and awakening, moving “Johnny” through stages of life and possibly drug drenched epiphanies at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, the green sludgy pool of the Tropicana Motel, cracked gravel Los Angeles avenues and alleyways, and eventually the Wiltern. After Horses, Smith and the band continued playing hits for nearly an hour, including an extended sing along of “People Have the Power,” “Because the Night,” and in celebration of Smith’s 69th birthday, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “When 6 Becomes 9” featuring a bouncy and barefoot Flea on bass.

The band returned for their encore and played one of the most memorable moments of the show: a keys heavy, double bass and quadruple guitar, part noise part protest interpretation of The Who’s “My Generation,” that only a performer like Patti Smith could envision. From behind her silvery mane, Smith belted out her version of the classic, switching things up (“I hope I LIVE til I get old! And I’m fucking old!”), ending by picking up a Fender Strat, and igniting a noise jam over pounding tom tom rolls, breaking most of her strings in the midst of a very post-911-esque political rant against capital tyranny. Holding the guitar vertically by its neck with strings dangling, she screamed “Behold! The weapon of my generation!” After more ethereal noise, Smith proclaimed “we are free people” beckoning the crowd of over 1,800 to reach their arms in the air and feel the blood coursing through their flesh, demanding us to “feel [our] creative energy, [and] feel [our] freedom.” Like the end of a new age LA yoga class, strangers stood sweaty with arms outstretched to the cosmos, set to a soundtrack that read as an homage and an indictment to the hippie generation for their work at the ground floor of an incomplete revolution.

Patti Smith’s performance was equally legendary and personal, especially since two of the musicians joining her on stage were her own children. It is rare when performers are so present at shows of this caliber, Smith and company were beyond there, enjoying each moment, fraught with impermanence, honesty and humor. At one point after coughing and restarting part of a song, Smith joked that she was merely trying to prolong the evening as much as possible. She shared personal stories such as the people and animals she honors who have passed before singing a haunting rendition of “Elegie,” and the motivation and process behind writing “Break it Up” after dreaming of Jim Morrison breaking free from a marble statue and turning into a butterfly. After engaging in conversation with fans within heckling distance, Smith was offered accolades and actually received a bouquet of flowers from a fan, to whom she gave a heartfelt thank you while sharing her childhood fantasy of being an opera star showered with flowers, a dream she could partially realize in that moment under white hot spot light center stage wedged between vintage gold leaf walls, high watt amplifiers, and nearly 2,000 people hanging on her every word.

I fell in love with Patti Smith’s prose on Saturday night, but not without complexity. She is an artist of her time, drenched in the tragedy, optimism, and duality that only a post-beat pre-punk musician can embody. If nothing else, Patti Smith brought her A game to Southern California and left it all out on the stage Saturday night, digging deep and giving LA everything she could artistically muster, solidifying the 69 year-old punk poet as a legend to be reckoned with.

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