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Playful poet of rock

Patti Smith has fun on the Santa Monica Pier as she offers up two hours of classics by herself and others.

August 18, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Patti Smith is enshrined as a poet of cultural upheaval and social rebellion, but on Thursday, in the unlikely setting of a seaside stage facing an amusement park, she reminded her audience of something else poets can do: describe and transfigure their immediate surroundings into something new and magical.

The New Jersey-raised, New York-based singer and her four-member band were the attraction at this week's edition of the Santa Monica Pier's Twilight Dance Series, now in its 23rd year of presenting free concerts with an emphasis on roots-rock and world music with a dance beat.

If the booking of a singer-songwriter-poet from the tradition of underground rock was unusual for the pier programmers, it appeared to be unreal for Smith, who wore a helpless grin as she walked onto the stage and surveyed the setting.

"This is great," she said, before opening with a song with a local connection, "Redondo Beach," from her landmark 1975 debut album, "Horses." After that rousing bit of reggae-flavored, girl-group rock, the grin returned. "It's great to see you, and the sea, and the Ferris wheel."

As a precursor of punk and a standard-bearer for rock's primal power, Smith is always attuned to the moment, and in this unusual environment, and on the final date of her four-month tour, she was more comedian than shaman, more playful than political.

She kept returning to the Ferris wheel as if it were a wonder of the world, and she reminded the Southern Californians that for people such as her, the commonplace palm tree signifies the exotic and romantic.

She ordained the event a festival and acted accordingly, joking with her band members, waving to her fans like a guerrilla Rose Parade princess and welcoming drop-ins from Lucinda Williams' guitarist, Doug Pettibone; veteran producer-musician Andy Paley; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, who pretty much took over the bass and added plaintive trumpet to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

After all this time, Smith remains the rock fan who became a rock star through sheer guts and desire and a raging determination to be heard, and that side of her was at the forefront in the wake of her latest album, "Twelve," which features her takes on songs by other artists.

She saluted the seabirds with her keening soprano saxophone on an epic version of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" erupted into a fierce affirmation of solidarity with Kurt Cobain and his bleak view of the world. Smith and the singing audience aimed the "hello hello" refrain toward the departed songwriter.

The L.A. connection was also strong in such selections as the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" and the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard," sung by her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, who had included the record in the influential "Nuggets" collection of garage-rock songs that he compiled in 1972.

Smith's two-hour set included some of her own classics as well, including her reinvention of Them's "Gloria," her hit Springsteen collaboration "Because the Night" and the idealistic closer "People Have the Power."

When she had trouble finding her note on "White Rabbit," she told the story of playing the Jefferson Airplane's record for the first time as a young woman, drinking some wine and singing along at the top of her voice. She was out of tune, she remembered -- and it didn't matter because it was rock 'n' roll. She's 60 now, but Smith remains the embodiment of that essence.


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