Words Lloyd Bolton
Higher Ground is a new organisation that sets out to showcase female artists linked by individuality and an uncompromising approach to their work. The debut event served as a manifesto for this project, bringing together three generations of women carving their particular identities into the annals of music. The event was due to be held in the open air at Alexandra Palace but evidently some teething issues behind the scenes resulted in a move to the London Palladium. Though the looseness of a festival setting was lost, the move added an excellent sound system and lent a cinematic quality to each performance, and Patti Smith and her Band ultimately cut through any sense of formality inherent in the venue.
Opening the night was Connie Constance, Radio 1-rock up-and-comer asserting the place of black women in indie rock with a set that was far heavier than her recorded output suggests. On a bill with two brilliant established performers, she performed like a headliner, even as people were shuffling into their seats. With hair swinging and voice howling on a shadowy backdrop evoking Man Ray’s Rope Dancer…, she set the benchmark for an epic evening of music.
Up next was Nadine Shah, whose combination of lounge, jazz and rock elements came together into a performance that was pure force. Her command of tone brought each element of her band together into a single thrashing being over which her witty and evocative lyrics soared. The songs generally took on less intricacy but greater force than they do on record. They would evolve Shah’s menacing repeating hooks to create a cavernous effect that squalled through the room, at its best when suddenly offset by the crunch of the horn section, as in the performance of ‘Trad’. Having said this, another highlight of the set was the more delicately arranged ‘Kite’, which laid out each element of the music individually as they interacted.
Strutting around in a green leopard-print two-piece, Shah shifted between cool detachment and openhearted joy at the occasion and its setting. At times, she caught the eye of friends and family in the audience, mouthing and grinning to them. She also shouted out her two-year-old daughter who was watching from the wings, pretty chuffed that the first show she had brought her to was a Patti Smith gig. Clearly humbled to be on this bill, Shah lived up to her part on it, with a powerful and complex set that electrified her incredible, singular recorded output.
And then there was Patti. With artists of such stature and history, you sometimes worry that their performances might stray into self-tribute, but Patti Smith has continued to produce new, relevant work across forms and at this show applied her performance to a vital present. Along with her band, she produced one of the most powerful live music performances I have ever witnessed, transmitting the vivacity, defiance and optimism that has been a constant throughout her career.
Smith’s work has always self-consciously presented itself as a manifestation of a broader artistic continuity, quoting and adapting other peoples’ work and expressing her admiration for fellow artists. It was this spirit which shaped the setlist, which showcased, among her own work, interpretations of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Wicked Messenger’, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote to Howl’, Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ and William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, and even at one point threw the spotlight on Lenny Kaye who led a performance of the Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. The setlist ran like a curated mix of songs that Smith felt would best inspire the audience with a sense of wonder and the fire of revolution. ‘The Tyger’ in particular was chosen, she explained, for the fierce spirit it captured, which she instructed the audience to apply to the problems besetting their world today before affecting a bedraggled sing-song voice for a powerful reading.
The show was dedicated to life, finding this in all of the work presented. As such, ‘Redondo Beach’ felt like an odd choice of opener, a lilting suicide story, brilliant but contrary to the arc of the set. It was with the recital of ‘Footnote to Howl’ that followed where the show truly kicked into gear, an impressive feat for an unbacked spoken interlude in a rock and roll set. Having seen it appear on other setlists from this tour, I had my doubts about its potential in this setting, concerned it would be a pale rehashing of existing recordings of Ginsberg’s own performances. Yet Smith’s voice and the images that passed through it invoked a life force that went on to flow through the subsequent songs, which became exalted by the affirmation that ‘the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy’. This ecstasy ran into a jaw-dropping rendition of ‘Free Money’, and through a gripping telling of ‘Nine’, and fuelled the atmosphere of the venue as a whole.
I have never experienced anything quite like the rapturous adoration enacted by the crowd through this set. In quiet moments between songs, people would shout praise to Smith, one calling out “you’re a legend, Patti!”. “I’m the shabbiest looking icon I’ve ever seen”, she replied, an offhand comment that crystallised the humanity of her earth-shattering performances. She was a regular person between songs, making goofy jokes that she laughed at herself, sipping at her tea, forgetting which song she was about to play, and dancing like a fan during Kaye’s Stooges cover. Yet in the fire of performance, she was transformed into a force of nature, uninhibited and instinctive as ever, the legend alive and kicking and screaming. One got the sense that the public role of her work as she saw it was show everyone that they have this transformation within their means, that everyone owes it to themselves and humanity to find their way to express themselves and “wrestle the world from fools”, as she repeated through closer ‘People Have the Power’.
That voice could stop the world. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”, the words that marked the definitive start of Smith’s recording career and capture her essential spirit as an artist, swept away everything but the present as she delivered them. The ensuing performance of ‘Gloria’ was infinitely absorbing, involving the audience in its hallelujah call and response refrain and transcending the occasion. At a break mid-song, she raised her guitar, and declared, “This is my weapon… it is a weapon of love… it does not kill, this is a weapon of peace”. Her following assault upon that guitar was so beautiful and essential that its irony evaporated. A feedback heavy, groaning solo gave way to the distorted sound of Smith violently ripping each string off of the neck, one by one. It enunciated the terror which her music fights, channelling rage into pure expression and calling the audience to these arms of peace.
Smith’s transcendental performance is everything Higher Ground are about as they celebrate creativity and rebellion through female perspectives. The night presented three different takes on this and was a pleasure to witness. Smith’s message was more general than this of course, and she pointed out that “I’m never one to ‘genderise’ anything”, acknowledging the potential of people of any gender to do amazing things. Her revolutionary spirit created a lasting impression of the night, symbolic of her testament that music, as a force of love, will continue to change the world for the better.