Patti Smith’s place in the history of popular music is distinct and unparalleled. Not quite a musician, not quite a singer, not quite a songwriter, yet capable of transcendence in all three categories, Smith has pursued an adventurous path that has produced unquestionably great art (“Horses,” “Easter”) and a number of confounding left turns along the way (“Wave” “Twelve”). Now at age 65, Smith is experiencing a period of vigorous reexamination by the general public, sparked largely by her acclaimed 2010 memoir “Just Kids” — winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In June of this year, Smith released her 11th studio album, “Banga,” a solid batch of material that balances her outsized brand of lyrical mysticism with a renewed sense of musical economy. Touring in support of the album, Smith performed at the Wiltern Theater Friday night as part of a four-date jaunt in California. The venue was full and the crowd — though clearly-skewed towards an older demographic — was populated with a healthy number of younger fans.
Opening with the muted doo-wop of “Kimberly,” Smith appeared relaxed, shuffling loosely across the stage in an oversized black coat — smoothly accenting her repeated cosmic refrain: “And the sky split / and the planets hit / balls of jade dropped / and existence stopped.” Her band performed with a wiry precision, carefully leaving space for her deepened, hiccuping vocals that seem to have only benefited from the rigors of aging. The band proved nimble and dynamic throughout the evening, shifting effortlessly from the guttural blues drone of “Fuji-san,” to the sweet ballad “Maria” — lovingly dedicated to French actress Maria Schneider.
The first third of the show was perfectly executed, blending some of her best older work with a selection of “Banga” highlights. “Free Money” was a standout, with Smith cascading wildly across the stage, howling her unhinged but desperately romantic refrains as the band churned with ever-increasing urgency. Then an acoustic reading of the incredibly dated-sounding “Ghost Dance” stalled the energy of the performance, and things never full recovered.
The middle portion of the set was unevenly paced, interrupted by a number of hit-and-miss anecdotes, including a lengthy, well-worn preface to her best-known song “Because The Night.” In spite of these inconsistencies, Smith did have her moments of transcendence, particularly a wonderfully vivid account of nights on the Bowery with Tom Verlaine that lead into a winking rendition of the alien-themed lament “Distant Fingers.”
Joined by guest bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the band capped the main portion of its set with an utterly interminable reading of “Constantine’s Dream” — a stream of consciousness raga that built and built with pretentious, needlessly opaque lyrics and a cliched modal structure — and an extended rendering of “Gloria,” in which Smith made reference to the imprisoned Russian punk band Pussy Riot by spelling the group’s name, letter-by-letter.
Smith and her band reemerged for the encore, joined unexpectedly by actor Johnny Depp on electric guitar. The guest appearance provided a confusing, visual non-sequitur as Depp — wearing a wide, feathered hat and baggy jeans — swayed back and forth, jabbing at his low-slung electric guitar. Though the two are friends and musical collaborators, the on-stage pairing was odd and distracting. Smith closed the evening with the idealistic plea “People Have the Power,” clearly using the song as a vessel to encourage voter participation in the upcoming election. In many ways, the concert functioned as a microcosm of her artistic career: emotional, scatterbrained and petulant, but ultimately unlike anything else on this earth.