SXSW Report #6: Patti Smith Rocks With Gung Ho Show

Punk-poet's first Austin, Texas, show in 20 years plumbs every album in her career.

AUSTIN, Texas — It took but an instant for Patti Smith to

lose her way on an outdoor stage Friday night. Then it took her only

a few moments to regain her bearings. But in that brief passage, the

punk-poet managed to encapsulate the life lessons that course through

her new album, Gung Ho, due Tuesday.

Smith and her band were trying to launch the album's title track, a

supple, extended meditation on Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. As she

stood at the mic, looking through her glasses at her lyric book, Smith

was unable to find the precise moment in the refined groove where she

was supposed to enter with the vocals. Time and again she was late,

unable to synch with guitarist Oliver Ray's facial cues.

But instead of starting over, Smith backed up to the drum riser, and

longtime guitarist and collaborator Lenny Kaye sidled to her left, never

yielding the riff. Bassist Tony Shanahan pulled in on her right, along

with Ray. Everyone maintained the groove as Smith turned her back to

the crowd, waited, and after a few seconds climbed into the song through

its narrow window.

More than anything she could have said at the microphone, the exchange

drove home Gung Ho's point that there is honor and reward in

persistence. More subtly, Smith played out the notion that there is

strength in surrender. By losing the distractions around her, she allowed

herself to live in the rhythm as well as letting the community, her

band, help her find her way.

"When an animal, a wildcat or something, is hungry, they sit quietly

and will listen in the forest, for hours even, for a sound, to let them

know that there's something out there for them," Smith said recently

in New York. "What we have to do is learn to contemplate and to listen."

After 20 Years, Still Full Of Zest

The free concert at Waterloo Park was the centerpiece of the five-day

South by Southwest annual music conference, which ends on Sunday. The

17-song, two-hour show also marked Smith's first gig here in 20 years,

and she played it both humbly and triumphantly from start to finish.

Between songs, she offered smiles as broad as Texas itself. Many in the

audience had not seen Smith since her days as an often incensed punk

and new-wave upstart two decades ago.

"She's not as angry as I remember," 38-year-old Jon Schappell of Ailleen,

Texas said. "She's healed over time. I'm at a loss. She's just so full

of energy."

Smith often let loose with the abandon of a prisoner whose cell door

had swung wide open. She chugged her arms like locomotive wheels on

"Pumping (My Heart)" from Radio Ethiopia (1976). On "Free Money," from

1975's Horses, the entire band churned up a noise that charged

off the stage like a rhinoceros.

Throughout the set, the 53-year-old jumped with the verve of some hungry

player from the Nirvana generation. As Smith got down on all fours at

the edge of the stage during her new single "Glitter in Their Eyes"

(RealAudio

excerpt), it was hard to remember that she's a peer of punk

pioneer Iggy Pop.

The setlist seemed hand-picked for a show 20 years in the making. The

band hit at least two songs from all but one of her eight albums,

including underground hits such as 1979's "Dancing Barefoot" (RealAudio

excerpt), as well as more obscure cuts, including "Ghost Dance"

(RealAudio

excerpt), from Easter (1978). The impassioned performances

kept nostalgia at bay, but also, the sound of much of Smith's catalog

— like many Beatles tracks — can't be tied to a single era.

Nearly every song she played Friday felt as if it could have come from

Gung Ho.

Call To Action

At several points, she made torrid pleas for political action. By the

close of "Don't Say Nothing," she was shaking with fury as she improvised

new lyrics. "I saw children shooting each other!" Smith said, herself

a mother of two. "I had to use my voice. ... Make your voice count!"

Smith had spoken recently in New York about the emotional and spiritual

impact of recent school shootings. "Once you have children, and you see

things happen to children, ... you project — I see a little girl

shot on the ground, and I imagine if it was my little girl," she said.

"It's really unbearable. It's like enough almost to make you vomit, it's

so horrible."

As "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" brought the show to a fiery, 10-minute close,

Smith tied around her head a Vietnamese flag that had been draped on a

speaker. She then proceeded to wrench the strings off an electric guitar.

"This is the only gun you'll ever need!" she said, a pointed election-year

message delivered in a state that allows its citizens to carry concealed

weapons.

Finally, she closed the set like a preacher who's also a general. "The

time is now!" she called. "Wake up! The streets belong to us." Surrender,

at that point, was the furthest thing from her mind.