The ticket said Patti Smith’s first performance of words and song at the Art Gallery of Ontario would start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, and that is precisely what occurred. Sixty-seven minutes later, the words had all been spoken, the songs (nine in total, no encore) sung, and the crowd of 400 was exiting venerable Walker Court to make way for another 400 fans scheduled to attend the artist’s second and final performance of the evening at 9:45 p.m.
Had Smith, the fabled “priestess of punk,” the “singing shaman” of New York, blown that first audience’s collective mind, taken them beyond the peaks of ecstasy, set their tongues to Babyl(on)ing? No, she had not. Certainly Smith didn’t lack for passion and commitment, but it’s hard to live up to one’s legend in one hour in an art gallery – and with acoustic guitars to boot. Moreover, the 66-year-old Smith was facing your almost archetypal Toronto crowd – respectful, occasionally enthusiastic in a hand-clappy way, but unwilling, finally, to get out of their heads and into the moment. “Well, that was fun,” said one departing patron – “fun” not being the sort of adjective usually ascribed to an artist whose first record, 1975’s Horses, began with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
Still, for all its constraints and almost recital-like tone, it was a fine, often charming performance, Patti Lite, if you prefer. Smith was joined on a makeshift stage by her pianist daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, and long-time compadre Tony Shanahan on guitar and vocals.
Charismatic as ever, Smith delivered deftly crafted segues of poetry, patter, memoir and music, including well-received versions of two of her most popular anthems, 1978’s Because the Night and People Have the Power from 1988. At the gig’s midway point, she even proffered some Canadian content – a lovely reading of Neil Young’s ode to Winnipeg, It’s a Dream, with its lyric about “the Red River still flows through my hometown/ Rolling and tumbling on its way.”
Unsurprisingly, the words portion of the evening drew quite heavily on material from Just Kids, Smith’s award-winning and bestselling account of her bohemian days in the late sixties/early seventies with the now-deceased Robert Mapplethorpe. Throughout the evening, Smith never used the photographer’s full name. He was just “Robert” – and because we were all fans, we knew she wasn’t talking Zimmerman.
Smith was in town and at the AGO because the gallery is currently hosting Camera Solo, an exhibition of more than 70 Smith Polaroids plus assorted artifacts from her personal collection (Pope Benedict XV’s slippers, her father’s Dickens memorial cup, a rock from the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941). It’s a strong show, very emblematic of Smith’s sensibility, and on view through early May in what is its only Canadian stop. But, hey, with Toronto only 800 kilometres from New York, was there any way the artist or the AGO would allow just pictures and relics to serve as the sole representation of the full Patti Smith Experience? No, the underlying expectation always was: Display them and it’s a pretty safe bet she will come.
In fact, the AGO cleverly built an entire evening around Smith’s appearance. Since last fall, the gallery has been running what it calls First Thursdays, moshing booze and food with art, music and workshops in an effort to heighten the gallery’s profile as a happening and (yes) fun place. Besides Smith’s performances Thursday, other locales throughout the gallery hosted “intimate sets by local artists inspired by Patti Smith,” poetry readings, a display of psychedelic posters, “Patti Smith-inspired” choral performances and “pop-up talks.” You could even get a “mini mac ’n’ cheese,” purportedly Mapplethorpe’s favourite Automat dish when he and Smith were young, in love and discovering “the sacred mystery of being artists” at the Chelsea Hotel.
Patti Smith and group perform a full concert Saturday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.