Patti Smith Brings Rock Poetry To Italy

Concert includes two new songs and covers of Hank Williams, Neil Young, Van Morrison.

MILAN, Italy — Her hair may be gray, but Patti Smith, 52, showed Saturday night (July 24) that she has energy many of her younger colleagues can only dream of.

Smith, whose debut album, Horses, was released in 1975, temporarily retired from music in 1979. She spent much of the '80s raising the kids she had with ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. She released only one album that decade, 1988's Dream of Life. But after her husband died in 1994, Smith returned to music with Gone Again (1996) and small tours in the United States and Europe.

Her concert at Idroscalo Park here was part of a monthlong tour that will end in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Thursday. Smith quickly set the tone when she strode onto the big, unadorned stage carrying a book of poetry.

The band — founding Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye (guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums), plus Oliver Ray on guitar and Tony Shanahan on bass — began to play "Spell" (RealAudio excerpt), from her most recent album, 1997's Peace and Noise. Smith gave a hypnotic reading of the composition, which is based on the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

Smith performed many of the poetic anthems that made her one of rock's most influential artists, including 1979's "Dancing Barefoot" (RealAudio excerpt). Dressed in jeans and an oversized black jacket, she waved her hands and danced as if in a trance.

"She's really evocative onstage," said concert-goer Antonella Sciara, 26. "The way she moves her hands reminds me of the rite of a shaman."

Smith unveiled two songs from her forthcoming and still-untitled new album, which is due in the fall, according to label representatives.

"Sorry for the mistakes," she said after she fumbled a few passages of one of the songs, an acoustic ballad. "I'm still learning it."

The concert reached a high point when Smith intoned 1996's "About a Boy" (RealAudio excerpt). Accompanying herself on Tibetan bells, Smith turned the song, a slow lament dedicated to the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, into an environmental protest anthem. "We want clean waters," she screamed at the song's end.

Smith's two-hour set, which also included covers of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," ended with a full-throttle medley of 1978's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" and Van Morrison's "Gloria."

"Her voice has a strange beauty, not a perfect or a common one," Sciara said.