The victory lap Patti Smith has taken since her overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been one of varying speeds and styles. She wrote an eloquent op-ed piece on her conflicting feelings over the honor; she has a poem in the current issue of the New Yorker; and she recorded an album of other people’s songs, “Twelve” (Columbia), for which she is just starting to tour. Roxy show was strictly promotional — “the guinea pig” concert, she laughingly called it, in which auds got the benefit of seeing the punk poet in small confines but were subjected to an underprepared show.
It was a long night — two sets over the course of three hours with a 15-minute intermission — which gave Smith plenty of time to crack wise instead of focus on the musicmaking. She made her way through nine of “Twelve’s” tracks, five of her own tunes and added the bonus covers of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” — a wretched version in which she forget words and then railed about “knowing the author” — and a sweet version of Lou Reed’s “A Perfect Day.” (On top of that, Smith’s longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye did his own cover, the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” a track that appeared on the Kaye-compiled landmark album “Nuggets.” Smith also performed her signature version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” as an encore.)
A bizarre blend of sloppy and taut performance, evening took a hit at the very beginning when Smith opened with the Tears for Fears landmark “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Tune receives a blase perf on the album, and the concert version was even more uninspired: Smith’s voice does not fit the tune particularly well, and the band’s arrangement removes the sunshine bright accompaniment and replaces it with a loping, nearly bored pace.
To a large extent, that’s a problem for a good half of “Twelve”: The songs themselves don’t appear to say a lot about Smith, her taste or influences — and as many are recorded with arrangements unchanged from the originals, the one point of impact should be Smith’s magnificently affecting voice. Too often, she’s not convincing.
At Wednesday’s show, Smith criticized the critics who have pointed out the karaoke-like nature of the album. None of the tunes provide her the freedom to climb inside and unleash the way her own “Free Money” — best perf of the night — does. She neatly navigates the twists and turns of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” keeps Dylan’s gazillion-versed “Changing of the Guard” interesting and exposes a compelling vulnerability in Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Yet her enthusiasm is so low for Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” that she makes a great song a time waster and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which should be a gimme in her hands, flops about out of anyone’s control.
Perhaps “Twelve” was recorded on a bad day or before the band had a firm command of the tunes. Were the softer songs used as a break from her more rigorous rockers, they might shine a bit better, but in Wednesday’s context, the covers were firmly in the spotlight. She needs to find the four or five best and chuck the rest — and get back to letting the world know that Patti Smith is a brilliant rock ‘n’ roll survivor who, as the disc “Trampin’ ” testified in 2004, still is a vital force.
Released April 24, “Twelve” sold 11,000 copies in its first week to debut at No. 60 — her best chart position in nearly 11 years. Smith and band head to Europe May 10 for a two-month trek before returning to the U.S. in August.