Although the anecdotal reactions on social media to her 69th birthday show the night before were rapturous to an almost unnerving extent, Patti Smith’s New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore was the best possible way to usher out one of the worst years for the world since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.
The simple billing of Patti Smith & Her Band belied the show’s fullness. Her band went on first, playing a long string of Summer of Love hits because, as one musician put it, “they’re gonna cram this down your throats next year” for the 50th anniversary of the Haight’s explosion into the popular consciousness. (“Next year,” meaning 2017.) And when it came time for a Jefferson Airplane medley, who walks out on the stage to sing Grace Slick’s vocals on “Somebody to Love” other than Patti herself, a surprise quasi-cameo in a knit cap and black Fillmore hoodie. They closed out on Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” a clever nod to New Year’s Eve. The nets of balloons tethered to the ceiling quivered a little, but that was probably the bass.
Patti Smith started 2015 at the Fillmore, she reminded us — although technically, that show was on Jan. 24 —and she ended it there, too.
“We’re the Fillmore bookends,” she said, launching into a possibly extemporized prose-poem that betrayed her East Village roots, touching on race, gender, mathematics, and the absurdity of it all. The guitar accompaniment was Hendrix-esque, by way of the seals under the Antarctic ice in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World.
“As for me, I am totally read to go!” Smith said, and spat.
In this third and final segment of her Fillmore residency, Smith’s vocals sounded a bit frayed, a bit like Fran Lebowitz’s voice. But, like weathered suspension bridge cables that can still carry a full traffic load, she stayed strong throughout the entirety of Horses and beyond. Having changed into a uniform of white shirts with black vests, the band’s sound tightened along with its appearance, and never more so than on Smith’s infinitely-more-famous-than-the-original cover of “Gloria,” repeating its lyric “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine” over and over.
Forty years after Horses' debut, there remains a seriousness, a righteous anger, to Smith’s punk-witch persona, but it doesn’t stop her from joking. When a middle-aged woman up front required medical attention, Smith made a reference to Chris Farley’s famously panic-stricken interview with Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live, powering forward through sheer nervous energy. The crowd approval mutated into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” which Smith graciously dedicated to the lead singer of Motorhead who had passed only days before: “Lemmy was born three days before me, so we sing for him, too!”
“Now,” she added, “we’re going to take the needle into the arm — that’s how we used to it — and play Side B!”
Impish heroin reference notwithstanding, there was a wonderful amount of banter between “Kimberly,” “Break It Up,” and the three-parter “Land.” Smith criticized Texas’ open-carry laws (“that’s the terrorism I’m afraid of”), mocked people who expected her performance to be a seamless reproduction of their vinyl copy of Horses, and related a dream she’d had about Jim Morrison being trapped inside a statue of a marble angel that then crumbled, freeing him. And she spat, liberally, always to her right.
Her litany of dead rockers was a slight downer at 11:40 as the anticipation crescendoed toward midnight, but apart from that, there wasn’t a trace of fatigue in her voice. Introducing her daughter (at the keyboards) at 11:47, Smith announced that there was only “10 more minutes of the living hell!” yet to go. When it was time for “Because the Night,” the cheering went on and on, but at 11:59 she launched into the theme to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the stonerrific show that wrapped up in August, calling Shake, Meatwad, and Frylock the “greatest characters in American literature.”
“I’m sorry I sang that so bad,” she said, her final non-countdown verbal expression of 2015. “I’m losing my voice!”
Happy New Year to you, too, Patti Smith.