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Having somehow avoided playing the Royal Albert Hall during her half-century career as a groundbreaking rock icon, Patti Smith finally rose to the occasion with her belated debut on this hallowed stage, the first of two consecutive shows. One venerable old musical institution drawing energy from another, the 74-year-old singer-songwriter was on impressively lithe and dynamic form, shaking her shaggy silver mane like a punky cousin of Mary Beard.
Smith opened with a riveting recitation of her freeform proto-punk poem Piss Factory, first recorded in 1974, a nightmarish depiction of the drudgery of manual labour and the life-saving power of artistic ambition. Written in response to a soul-numbing assembly-line job, this track feels like a victory anthem today, decades after the singer turned youthful small-town bohemian dreams into concrete reality by escaping to New York City.
Keeping things in the family as usual, Smith’s deluxe garage-rock band included her two grown-up children. Son Jackson played guitar throughout, adding some exquisitely luminous finger-picking to the slower numbers. Meanwhile, daughter Jesse contributed occasional keyboards and backing vocals. As ever, the singer’s long-serving guitarist and co-writer Lenny Kaye stood at her shoulder, radiating a similar mix of wired intensity and skinny-jeans scruffy-cool CBGB chic.
Lamenting the pandemic and its terrible death toll, Smith peppered this set with tributes to absent friends, both living and dead. She dedicated the deceptively jaunty reggae-pop suicide song Redondo Beach to legendary Jamaican studio innovator Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died in August. Drummer Charlie Watts was also commemorated with a rousing, swashbuckling version of the Rolling Stones classic I’m Free, which segued midway through into Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. Smith also introduced My Blakean Days with some fond words about “fine English gentleman” Ralph Fiennes, the latest in a series of teasing hints that she and the British screen star are romantic partners.
Smith barely made a duff choice all night, balancing self-penned tracks like the thunderous Beneath the Southern Cross and the banal but catchy People Have the Power with a rich selection of cover versions. Closing the show on a roaring crescendo with her radical reworking of Van Morrison’s Gloria and a rowdy gallop through Buddy Holly’s vintage bone-shaker Not Fade Away, the singer bounced and twirled around the stage with gleeful abandon. “London, you have captured my heart tonight,” she beamed. Judging by the devotional reaction from the Albert Hall crowd, the feeling was mutual.
Patti Smith plays the Royal Albert Hall again tonight