The Wilshire Theater’s marquee announced “Patti Smith, 8 p.m.”; hanging below it was a smaller sign reading “Religious Service, Sunday 11 a.m.” This juxtaposition makes a certain amount of sense, because more than any performer this side of Bruce Springsteen, Smith believes in the redemptive power of rock music. Her subdued but still exhilarating performance Friday was proof that she still has the talent and fervor to back up her beliefs.
At age 53, she is no longer the careening hellion of the past. She has become, not surprisingly, a diva. Standing center stage, Smith has the implacable self-knowledge of a Marlene Dietrich or Marianne Faithfull. She performs with a blunt honesty and conviction that turns lesser material from “Gone Again” and “Peace & Noise” into something approaching transcendence. Time has sandblasted the startlingly sharp features that stared out 25 years ago from the cover of “Horses,” imbuing her profile with the craggy grandeur of Easter Island statues. Her vocals have grown worn around the edges as well, but she’s a better singer than in the past.
Smith also possesses a sui generis accessibility and vulnerability. Forgetting the lyrics to “Gone Pie,” she laughed, accepted the blame, told the adoring audience that “if you’re feeling weird, don’t worry. Wait 2½ minutes, and it will pass.” When a fan complained about security, Smith jumped into the crowd during a blistering “Sweet Revenge,” joking that “no security guards (mess) with me.” Later, she gave fans a chance to sing along on “People Have the Power” and “Gloria.”
But Smith was less voluble a figure than in the past, almost reticent, and the evening lacked her usual back and forth rapport. She more than made up for it, however, with an evening that reminded the crowd why they love rock ’n’ roll in the first place.
Smith is as much an outsider in the manicured pop landscape today as she was in the mellow, corporate-rock mid-’70s. It’s been 25 years, but Patti Smith will not allow herself to become a nostalgia act. For this alone she deserves a hallelujah.