When Johnny met Edward

Patti Smith and her band play in Berlin

By Sascha Krieger

As the Berlin night begins to fall on Spandau’s historic Citadel on the edge of the German capital, the past and the present become one. As in 1975 when an album named Horses shook the musical world, we meet Johnny meets the swift and graceful animals in a whirlwind of dream and nightmare and vision and stream-of-consciousness poetry. But he also meets Edward Snowden and the protesters in Istanbul before Gloria appears and it all ends in the statements with which that record began: „Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.“ As Patti Smith sends her audience home with her 1988 song People Have the Power, it suddenly appears a little less naive, a little less utopian. Smith has always been a political artist and she has always been a keen observer of the world around her. She has seen the Arab Spring and she has seen its dark side, she knows that the power the people have can turn into something bad but she will never stop believing that it belongs in nobody else’s hands. On stage, she can be many things: a preacher, a shaman, a seer, a rebel, a friend. On this mild summer night, she is first and foremost a rock and roll singer who needs no great speeches to say what she has to say. And that is not her worst incarnation.

Patti Smith has been a frequent visitor to Berlin. As recently as last year, she enchanted her audience at the Tempodrom. This year, headlining a mini festival in honor of German concert promoter Berthold Seliger’s 25th anniversary, she has the difficult task of following Calexico, the Californian band mixing Latino music and Americana who had delivered an excellent, fresh and rousing set. Patti Smith remains undaunted, she seems genuinely honored to share the stage with musician as good as the band from California. And of course, she does have her share of great musicians, too: Jay Dee Daugherty, her hard-working, matter-of-factly drummer who delivers the slimmest and most driving of beats or Tony Shanahan, bassist and co-writer and musical backbone. And of course Lenny Kaye, her oldest and truest friend, collaborator and companion who can still deliver those cuttingly dry guitar riffs that once heralded the dawning of that rebellious musical emancipation we now call punk rock. They have all grayed considerably, but when they come together to make music, they appear as youthful as ever.

Particularly Smith who is at home in the role of priestess embracing the audience as well as in a rocker’s pose with one foot on the monitor. Backed by her trusted band, she moves through the decades, (literally) barks out the title song of her latest album Banga, hovers on the circular and ever so slightly intensifying layers of Beneath the Southern Cross or dives into the meditative Ghost DanceSummer Cannibals comes across as a plain rock song that never hides its darkness, Because the Night has not been drowned in routine yet and Pissing in a River is as dark and mysterious and unbearably intense as it’s always been. Nobody could write songs so simple and yet so deep, so meandering and yet building up to an inescapable climax as Patti Smith, songs that are rock and roll and poetry, recitation and scream, spoken word and intoxicating music at the same time. It might seem paradoxical that it is the old materiel, such as Land/Gloria or Pissing in a River that sound the freshest. They have not lost their power, the confused and confusing world they tell about has not changed all that much.

And neither has Patti Smith who still believed in the power of music, the magic of human thought and reason, the force of the word. True, the concert lacks some of the relentless energy her greatest concert can have, in no small part due to the omission of songs like Free Money or Rock N Roll Nigger with which she outpunked the likes of the Sex Pistols. Here, the pace is a little slower, the musical variety greater, the intensity a little more subdued. Yet still, when Patti Smith and her band play, the music flows raw and undiluted into those brains and guts and bodies and souls as it always has – and one can only hope that it always will.

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