Patti Smith walked on stage Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre wearing a hooded warmup jacket that made her look like a monk returning from a lengthy retreat, which is not a bad way to think of her first formal U.S. tour in 17 years.
Smith, who turned away from rock stardom in 1979 to raise a family in Detroit with musician Fred "Sonic" Smith, is so respected by much of today's rock community that the atmosphere in the Wiltern bordered on spiritual reverence.
In the '70s, the singer-songwriter combined the power of poetry and the force of music to speak about self-affirmation and longing in such personal, confessional terms that she influenced virtually every artist of worth who has followed her.
Though it's hard to recapture that magic after all this time, Smith--even more than in a handful of acoustic club dates last fall--still delivers the goods. She was inspiring, whether reviving exquisite moments from her landmark albums or singing new songs of equal richness, including "About a Boy," the most illuminating of the many odes to the late Kurt Cobain.
Like few artists ever in rock, Smith can move in the blink of a chord change from music as deliciously energizing as the morning sun to music as remote as the night's coldest hour.
In some ways, the theme of the nearly two-hour concert was survival, a point underscored just before the encore with a blazing version of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," which she augmented with her own poetry to create a magical expression of eternal optimism.
The theme is an especially emotional one for Smith, who has suffered through the deaths of several friends and relatives in recent years, including younger brother Todd, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, former band member Richard Sohl and, crucially, her husband.
Even the stylish five-piece band--which included '70s collaborators Lenny Kaye on guitar, Tom Verlaine on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums--had the feel of an extended family. The musicians, who also included bassist Tony Shanihan and guitarist Oliver Ray, seemed as intent on supporting Smith emotionally as musically. Smith's son, Jackson, added to the communal atmosphere by playing electric guitar on one song.
In the evening's most triumphant moments, Smith demonstrated she is a survivor herself. She isn't returning to rock as just a treasured voice from the '70s, but also as a valuable one for the '90s.
* Patti Smith plays tonight and Tuesday at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. $25. (310) 278-9457. Also Wednesday at 4th & B, 345 B St., San Diego, 8 p.m. $25. (619) 231-4343.