Patti Smith was less than a minute into her concert Wednesday at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim, but a few fans near the stage were already shouting their affection so intensely that Smith lost her place in the song.
Pausing during the opening night of a U.S. tour that includes a stop tonight at the Wilshire Theatre, the lanky singer-songwriter looked over at her longtime sidekick, guitarist Lenny Kaye, and broke into laughter.
After finishing the gentle meditation, titled "One Voice," Smith apologized for getting distracted. She then pointed to the exuberant fans and added playfully, "But it's your fault, you got me too excited."
It was disarming to see Smith, 53, genuinely uplifted by the reaction, because you'd think she'd be used to that type of fierce appreciation after a quarter century as a rock heroine.
At the same time, that kind of unbending loyalty can be dangerous for a performer. When virtually anything you do is loved by your audience, it's easy to start cutting corners artistically.
But Smith, one of the most acclaimed figures ever in rock, has not lowered the bar. Her new "Gung Ho" album is an unusually demanding work, with themes ranging from the self-affirmation that characterized so much of her early work to social issues--excessive materialism, the lingering scars of slavery, Vietnam.
While some of the tracks lack the seductive and accessible edges of Smith's "Horses" and "Easter" period in the '70s, her commitment and purpose still deserve respect.
It's on stage, however, that Smith's passion and power are best displayed. The most dramatic example Wednesday came when she held the crowd in rapt attention for the album's most challenging track--its title song.
It's easy for a listener to lose focus during the slow, deliberate, 11-minute tribute to the revolutionary spirit of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. At the Sun, however, Smith delivered the song with such command that the room was hushed by the end of the number.
Despite its subject matter, "Gung Ho" isn't a straightforward political or protest song. (Smith reportedly saw a TV documentary on the leader and was struck by how much he was influenced by U.S. ideals, including the Declaration of Independence.) It is part of Smith's larger manifesto: that individuals can make a difference. It's a theme expressed most overtly in "People Have the Power," a track from her 1988 album, "Dream of Life." The new "One Voice," in fact, is a nod to Mother Teresa.
What was most striking at Wednesday's show, which included such early gems as the moody "Redondo Beach" and the explosive "Rock 'n' Roll N-----," was how Smith has been able to maintain her return to the rock battlefield at full power after taking off more than a decade to raise her two children. It was only after the death in 1994 of her husband, rock musician Fred "Sonic" Smith, that she resumed the active musical life.
At the time, it was simply good to see Smith on stage again. The shows then seemed part of a mourning process--Smith had lost not only her husband, but also several other people close to her. It was hard to imagine, though, that she'd regain the energy or will to recapture her old energy and passion. Indeed, her first shows after Smith's death were designed more as poetry readings than concerts.
Smith was reaching for her old fire when she played the Wiltern Theatre in 1997, and it's fully back now.
Besides Kaye, she's backed by Oliver Ray on guitar, Tony Shanahan on bass and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. The musicians inject the songs with arty, atmospheric touches without sacrificing power, which is ideal for Smith's own mix of high art and gut-level rock sensibilities.
Because she has been such a strong, independent voice, it was intriguing late in the two-hour show when Smith gave herself a treat by leading the band through "Be My Baby," the old Phil Spector-produced Ronettes hit from the '60s girl-group.
Before the song, she explained that she used to sing it with her teenage friends back in New Jersey. But in those days, she said, she had to sing background. "Now, I can sing lead," she added with a big smile.
The evening's most invigorating number was equally upbeat. "Gone Pie" isn't just one of the most inviting songs on the new album, but it's also one of the most winning songs Smith has written. It's a celebration of life and love, accented by sensual undercurrents reminiscent of Van Morrison.
Life, she sings at one point, is much too great to sacrifice. "Come and have another slice."
It's a wonderful anthem--one that is all the more effective because of the resilience Smith has shown, as an artist and as a person.
* Patti Smith plays tonight at 8 at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. $27.50. (323) 468-1716.