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The Patti Smith Trio Visits The California Coast, 2023 Edition
San Luis Obispo, 10 August 2023 | Monterey, 11 August 2023
Patti Smith was recently in California to play a string of small, intimate shows beginning in the High Desert, before heading up the coast to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey and then reconvening the full band in San Francisco before heading to the Pacific Northwest. I caught the tour at SLO and Monterey, two beautiful art deco former movie theaters. She played these dates as The Patti Smith Trio, with her son Jackson Smith and erstwhile foot soldier Tony Shanahan as the sum total of her band. Given that lineup, these were stripped down, minimalist performances, but they were by no means any less compelling as any full band outing.
Tony Shanahan is the musical equivalent of a Swiss army knife in that he can sing lead or backup, play multiple instruments, act as musical director, and even clean her spectacles should she pull them out of her pocket onstage and realize she can barely see through them. Tony is a benevolent presence of good and it’s not so much that he’s ego-less, it’s that his onstage presence is always about serving the greater good. Jackson Smith is a fucking brilliant guitar player and also carries himself with positivity and grace. He can play anything, as he demonstrated when Patti introduced a cover of Television’s “Guiding Light” in honor of fallen friend and compatriot Tom Verlaine. You don’t try to play a Television song unless you are deeply certain you can do it justice.
If you’ve seen Patti Smith in any sort of acoustic or solo or here’s Lenny, we’re gonna play a few then you know what you’re likely to hear: “My Blakean Year,” “Grateful,” “Ghost Dance,” maybe “Dancing Barefoot” and possibly, depending on the situation, “Because the Night.” The first three easily translate into limited instrumentation because they’re acoustic-guitar-based, and the latter always works because of the amount of sheer joy Patti always infuses into it, encouraging the audience to sing along at the top of their lungs on the chorus. These regulars had additional oomph because although Patti did play acoustic for about half the set, she wasn’t the main or only instrumentation, so she could focus on her vocal performance. I’m not at all alleging that she doesn’t do as good of a job solo - she always brings a diligence that continues to abash me - just acknowledging the space the trio format brings to these setlist stalwarts.
Deconstructing your full band songs down to fit keyboards/bass and guitar is harder than it looks. It’s not just picking up an acoustic guitar and playing the melody. Tony Shanhan can and does play keys and bass simultaneously, slinging the latter instrument around his back like an archer until it’s time to bring the rhythm, but the craft of taking musical compositions apart and then reconfiguring them requires careful thought and creativity. This is why when Jackson began playing a chord series that to my ear sounded like “All Along The Watchtower” I initially thought I was wrong. It was a beautiful bit of editing and deconstruction, whittling the song down to its essentials, slowing the tempo and altering it ever so slightly. It was less of a whirlwind and more of a ninja moving through a series of tai chi forms. It was stunning.
If you’ve seen Patti Smith and her Band you know that Lenny usually gets a solo spot -- back in the day it was Lenny and Ivan Kral, and these days Lenny generally shares the moment with Tony, sometimes prefaced as a “It’s a Nugget if you dug it!’, and it’s either a beloved cover or ancient garage rock anthem. It gave Patti a minute to take a break and rest her voice and let the guys have some fun before she’d dance back onstage to sing a chorus or two. In these shows, Tony took that role (as the road crew delivered a chair for Patti Lee to sit in sidestage) and offered a gorgeous tribute to Robbie Robertson with a cover of “It Makes No Difference,” telling us that it was one of his favorites and one he used to perform years ago.
“It Makes No Difference” is always heart-rending, the Band specialized in heart-rending, and this rendition was touching and perfectly executed, the audience holding their silence until the chorus when many of us quietly sang along. It broke my heart to hear that we’d lost Robbie and I knew I could count on Patti to acknowledge his passing in a way that would be genuine because it is a loss to the musicians onstage as much as it was to those of us in the audience. When you’re walking through a world that devalues art or at least doesn’t take it seriously, you want to be able to share your grief or feelings with others who feel the same way you do, and you usually don’t have anywhere else to do it besides a rock and roll show, which is why these kinds of tributes are important. This one was.
This was a set with two Dylan covers, with “One Too Many Mornings” coming later in the set. Patti has done battle with this particular selection before when she started adding it to her shows in 2021. It’s not an easy selection, the cadence and the phrasing are precise and exact in ways you can’t necessarily see from the outside. But she’s delivering intense and seamless performances and I’m glad she continues to wave the flag for Bobby D. In Monterey, she told a hilarious story about being on tour with him in Australia and accidentally walking into his tent one day and discovering him there, shirtless, and then making tracks out of the tent as quickly as possible. (She seemed both horrified and delighted.)
“Beneath the Southern Cross” is the song I will never get tired of watching or hearing or telling people about. It is an entity, it is its own universe, it is never the same twice and it always expands to fit whatever energetic container has been created. In SLO, after conferring briefly with Tony, Patti told us that he’d instructed her to just keep playing -- they usually are asking her to drop out and not play sometimes, but here her continual strumming on the acoustic was meant to stand in for the drums, to be a rhythmic foundation that the bass and guitar could rely on. It’s always one of my favorite moments but in San Luis Obispo, for some reason it felt like time stood still for just a second or two. “Southern Cross” is a balm and a comfort but it is also, and perhaps equally, a vehicle of power, a funeral dirge, a dirge sung by banshees in the midst of mourning and overpowering grief. It is the song I played on repeat the night after my father died, as I sat up all night and worked on his obituary. Patti introduces the song these days by noting that it wasn’t just for the dead people she knew, but it was for all of us who were missing someone in our lives. This is my church, and hers too.
“Pissing In A River” is fantastic in the stripped down setting, I’ve come around to appreciating it more even without the loud noise the full band brings to it. In Monterey, Patti dedicated it to Sinead O’Connor and she didn’t have to say anything more than that. On the way down the coast, my traveling companion and I had been listening to Sinead reading her autobiography and I appreciated having another opportunity to grieve yet another terrible loss and to collectively share space holding her in our hearts. Sometimes I hate this planet.
The band went off for the traditional encore break in San Luis Obispo, and I was pretty sure the encore would be “People Have The Power,” because that’s a logical and correct way to end the show. And that was indeed what was on the setlist, but when the trio came back onstage, Patti called an audible that required guitars to be returned and some rearranging, before she commented that they were going to need our help with this one, that they weren’t really set up to do it in this format, but that they were going to give it a try. With that, Tony Shanahan hit the intro chords to “Gloria” and the audience stood up straighter and it felt like we all took a deep breath at the same time.
The crowd in SLO was a mix of gray heads and the town weirdos and a large contingent of students from Cal Poly, which was just up the road from the theater. The energy had been buzzy all night, and there are few performers who can read and handle a crowd like Patti does; she definitely called this one correctly and “Gloria” ended up coming together in a crazy, beautiful form despite everything it was ostensibly missing. But it wasn’t missing anything at all, ultimately, and had everything that it needed. It was still in the set the next day in Monterey, the band seeming both delighted and bemused that they had created this particular and gorgeous mutation of a song that already moved mountains.