This post has been corrected. See below for details.
Among the pleas and invectives, yowls and barks coming from Patti Smith on stage at the Wiltern on Friday, the bellowed cries of “free money!” “Gloria!” and “Pussy Riot!”; the Sylvia Plath dedication and the yarn about Jimmy Iovine, Bruce Springsteen and the birth of “Because the Night,” the singer, poet, and National Book Award-winning memoirist relayed a sage piece of advice to the crowd.
“You don’t have to go to school,” she said. “Just come to our concerts.”
Excluding the knowledge necessary to train budding mathematicians, organic farmers, or Bain Capital partners, Smith had a point.
During the two-hour show many lessons were buried within the set, drawn from nearly 40 years of songwriting. References to Roman emperors on “Constantine’s Dream,” Hopi Indians on “Ghost Dance,” the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on “Fuji-san,” infused the music with sense of purpose.
She dedicated (for little apparent reason, she joked) “Beneath the Southern Cross” to Plath, and another to the late actress Maria Schneider, best known for her work opposite Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris.”
Wearing her trademark bangs-and-bushy hair style and loose-fitting black blazer/vest/white T-shirt/blue jeans combo and backed by a band of four men, the singer also offered poetic narratives in and alongside her reimagined historical dramas.
She loaded within her thick, big-idea songs with meditations on healing, loss, the past and the many ghosts that inhabit it -- the universal stuff of life. Guest appearances by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and actor/guitarist/part-time Keith Richards impersonator Johnny Depp amped up the second half of the concert. Flea provided rolling basslines so Lenny Kaye and Jackson Smith could roam on guitars, and Depp, holding his electric guitar low, strummed chords in rhythm during the encore songs.
“Maria” was one of the concert’s highlights. Taken from Smith’s new album, “Banga,” the song is a meditation on memory and death, subjects that have increasingly occupied her work in the latter half of her career.
“Banga” was released to (too) little fanfare in early summer, and no doubt this quick West Coast tour was propelled in part by the desire to showcase it -- and her set list reflected this.
Another reason for the tour, though, was typically Smith-ian: She explained between songs that Friday was not only the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, but of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca’s death. Those two truths, she told the crowd, prompted her to hit the West Coast for a few dates -- and were subjects addressed in the 10-plus-minute “Constantine’s Dream,” the anchor of “Banga.”
But this focus on new songs didn’t come at the expense of her classics. The magical six minutes of “Beneath the Southern Cross,” from her 1996 album “Gone Again,” seemed to levitate the Wiltern. “Oh to be not anyone,” she sang of the mystical realm beyond life and death, “Gone -- this maze of being, skin.” When bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan wailed during one of the song’s many climaxes, truth be told, I kinda started crying.
She and the band also filled the Wiltern with “Kimberly,” “Because the Night,” “Dancing Barefoot,” “Pissing in a River,” “Gloria,” “People Have the Power,” and, to close it off, “Rock n Roll Nigger.”
Her fawning fans were excited, to say the least -- sometimes annoyingly so. (We know you love Patti, but please don’t declare it while she’s telling a story, or emit a piercing whistle during a soft moment.)
So was the band, anchored by longtime guitarist Kaye -- famously hired by Smith, she wrote in her memoir “Just Kids,” because of his ability to “play a car crash with an electric guitar.” Over the years Kaye’s perfected the art of the Fender bender, as well, and if he needs to he can drive said car off of a Road Runner sized-cliff.
Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty wore a fedora and perfectly framed Smith’s singing, just as he’s done throughout his three-decade-plus affiliation. Jack Petruzzelli (Rufus Wainwright, Joan Osborne, the Fab Faux) is a fantastic guitarist, and Shanahan’s bass pulled with the power of a tug boat.
Flea and Depp showing up was pretty cool -- even if it made an otherwise humble night of rock ‘n’ roll feel a little too Hollywood. But it’s hard to argue with the song that they all closed with: “Rock and Roll Nigger.” At its peak, five guitarists were delivering those powerful chords.
The song ended. “That’s all I got,” said Smith, out of breath. Then, one by one, she broke the six strings on her electric guitar as if each were an exclamation point, and walked off the stage.
Correction: The original version of this post wrongly identified one of Patti Smith’s guitarists. Jack Petruzzelli performed alongside Smith, not, as originally written, Jackson Smith.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit