Ushering in 2017 with Patti Smith and band at Chicago’s Park West New Year’s Eve was inspiriting for us of a certain age and artsy disposition.
Grey-haired but loose and limber — funny, fierce, profane and poetically incantatory — Smith celebrated her 70th birthday in the city of her origin as if for all boomers and our progeny. At the Riviera Theatre on Dec. 30 she performed the whole of Horses, her winning 1975 debut album; on the 31st, backed by her four-man Nuggets, she offered a mixed bag including Debbie Reynold’s plaintive “Tammy,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright,” a Prince cover, vague comments that become stories that turned images into phrases conjuring her anthems “Gloria,” “Because the Night” and “People Have the Power,” and for a finale the Who’s “My Generation” — as a call to arms in the form of active humanitarianism united in cultural bohemianism, a commitment to folk-rock-soul-art-literary-punk fun.
“2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love!” Smith exhorted the full house of hipsters — perhaps a third the 900 standing for three hours in a mosh pit, though most looked as well-aged as Smith and her longtime guitarman, Lenny Kaye. “Our generation had ideals! We were going to change the world with music, love, sex, drugs, understanding! This was our weapon — ” she hoisted a Fender — “and now we’ve got to be strong! We’ve got a voice! We’ve got to teach the young, they’re the future!” She waved at her daughter playing keyboards, and hugged a Japanese guitarist who’d come from Tokyo to sit in. “We must not behave!”
Extraordinarily for a New Year’s Eve party, in the middle of a show which had the immediacy of something thrown together with and for friends, Smith broke into talking about people less fortunate that those of us who’d gathered at some cost just for a good time. It was as if she made it easier to enjoy by acknowledged how fucked up things are, on so many levels.
She complained of not understanding why people who need blankets can’t be given them, people who need food or water aren’t provided for of course, and segued into her sympathies for Syrian refugees and others displaced by war.
This came off not as a self-righteous didactic political statement but straightforward personal expression and the crowd responded with a long moment of quiet solemnity. Which Smith broke by mentioning that she and the band were supposed to be revving up to a climactic midnight, so the drummer resumed rocking, guitars chimed in, she sang with a throb and a catch in her voice, bass lines led in a bumptious way to spinning, glinting, swirling disco-ball lights and a cascade from the ceiling of colored balloons — “Happy New Year! Stay strong!”