Patti Smith remains punk's least pretentious poet

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Patti Smith's Bluesfest performance is a powerful reminder of her genius and relevance.

Classic Album shows are weird.

Instead of tailoring a set to exactly what they want to play, an artist is suddenly beholden to a rigid structure. Their setlist is written and the show immediately comes loaded with a series of sometimes conflicting expectations. 

She starts ripping the strings from the guitar as she screams at the crowd. She tells us she’s not going to die, she tells us we need to fight for a better world and she makes us realise anything is possible.

It’s hard to win; stray too far from the original source material and you’ll risk alienating the fans. Pump out a mere carbon copy of what we’ve heard on record hundreds of times over and the unique power of a live performance is lost.

It's impossible to sum up exactly how Patti Smith and her band manage to vanquish those ugly tropes. But their performance of Smith’s seminal 1975 album Horses on the opening night of Bluesfest was nothing short of a triumph.

It all comes down to Patti. It’s tough to think of a more entrancing performer.

She stands at the front of the stage, completely poised, but also vulnerable. Confident, but warm and approachable.

She responds to the individual adoring cries from the crowd with grace and sheepish appreciation.

She’s nothing but herself. She has a natural charm that can’t be confected. But she’s also a performer in the truest sense of the word.

She reads ‘Birdland’ from a sheet of paper, a subtle but affecting piece of theatre. She adds a line about coral bleaching in the barrier reef, which, cringingly, gets a cheer from the crowd. 

She tells us about the dream she had about Jim Morrison before ‘Break It Up’. She pays tribute to a list of fallen friends in ‘Elegie’.

It feels like Smith and her band want to be here and they want to be playing this material. They are honouring the work, not scrambling for relevance. Perhaps that why it works so well.

RELATED: The J Files: Patti Smith's Horses

Horses takes an hour and then comes a staggering run of hits. 'Dancing Barefoot' goes straight into 'Because The Night', 'People Have The Power' a fierce (and profane) take on The Who's 'My Generation'.

During that cover, Smith picks up a guitar for the first time tonight and blasts us with glorious noise.

"This is my fucking weapon," she screams as they go into ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’. She starts ripping the strings from the guitar as she screams at the crowd. She tells us she’s not going to die, she tells us we need to fight for a better world and she makes us realise anything is possible. It’s a jolt of positive energy and useful angst that we all need right now.

Smith tells us she's lost her voice, but it's impossible to tell. Truly. Her delivery of every word is clear, considered and impossible to ignore.

She's overtly political. The whole show feels like an act of protest. Many of her lyrics ring true today, while some are amended slightly to make them more relevant.

It feels like a lazy and perhaps churlish comparison, but she has the same allure as Lily Tomlin's wonderful Frankie character in the TV series Grace & Frankie. A free spirit with a sharp mind and a sense to agitate at all times.

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Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at Bluesfest 2017. Photo by Steve Ford.

Her band are flawless, but perhaps their strongest asset is the way in which they virtually fade into the background. They never overpower Patti. They don't jostle for attention. They play with precision – and power, when it’s needed – and make these songs shine as brightly as they do on record. Plus, Lenny Kaye still has the best hair in rock'n'roll. 

Strangely, part of the success of this show is down to the audience. It's hard to recall a headline show at a festival that has a crowd so hushed. The respect the audience pays to Smith is monumental. It’s deserved, of course, but unexpected. 

It is a cruel clash tonight. Nas, one of the greatest rappers of all time, is playing an exclusive set with New Orleans' amazing Soul Rebels brass band just 100m away.

Even closer to where we stand, one of the most affable, literate and catchy songwriters of the modern era, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, plays an intimate show.

But neither of these giants stand a chance tonight. The night belongs to Patti.

Double J brings you live music and interviews from Bluesfest this Sunday from 2pm.

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