What was most miraculous about Patti Smith’s performance yesterday evening, opening this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, was that everybody who wanted to get in to see her was able to. That may seem bizarre, considering how far the line snaked around Damrosch Park and down Columbus Avenue before the gates opened at six, but by the end of the night, everybody was in, there was plenty of room and if everybody wasn’t listening attentively – most were – at least the crowd seemed contented. Prospective concertgoers should be aware that this year, in the wake of the tragedies in Paris and Nice, the security staff here are checking everybody’s bags. But they did that quickly and efficiently, and even courteously, something that should be the case everywhere but is not. Getting practically strip-searched by the sadistic door crew at Brooklyn Bowl Tuesday night was beyond the pale: that venue most assuredly won’t ever get any coverage at this blog again.
But Lincoln Center Out of Doors will, because even by cynical New York standards, this concert was transcendent, and there are several on this year’s slate that are equally enticing – the full schedule is here. The all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache opened the night auspiciously with a tantalizingly brief set that ran short of forty minutes. Frontwoman Mireya Ramos dazzled the crowd with her soaring vocal range and her lightning chops on the violin, backed by her bandmates on bajo sexto, guitars and percussion. Ramos’ originals ran the gamut from plaintively waltzing to bouncy quasi-schoolyard rhymes, with a couple of playful detours into Led Zep and a less successful grunge remake. While the group – who take their name from the moonflower, which is reputedly an aphrodisiac – have a thing for the stately, dramatic strains of classic mariachi music, they transcend that genre. They closed with an irrepressibly jaunty, snazzily harmonized, Andrews Sisters-inspired arrangement of the jazz standard Blue Skies, a hint that this group has even more up their collective sleeves.
Smith told the crowd that she’d been asked to read a lot, in lieu of playing, but then added that she didn’t always do what she’s told. And drew lots of applause for a couple of poignant reminiscences of her Chelsea Hotel days with Robert Mapplethorpe, from her wildly popular memoir Just Kids. Then she led the band – her daughter Jesse Paris Smith on keys and longtime supporting cast Lenny Kaye on lead guitar, Tony Shanahan on bass and J.D. Daugherty on drums – through a mix of crowd-pleasers and unexpected treats. They opened with a delicate, slowly waltzing version of Wing, then picked up the pace immediately with a bristling Dancing Barefoot, the prototype for a million janglerock hits or would-be hits. Pouncing, intense versions of Summer Cannibals and Ghost Dance followed: Smith was on a roll and building to something that would prove to as unforgettable and impossible to turn away from as it was characteristically relevant.
A toweringly elegaic, organ-fueled take of This Is the Girl brought down the volume but raised the intensity. Introducing a tensely waltzing take of Break It Up, the bandleader explained how the song was based on Jim Morrison appearing to her in a dream as a marble statue in chains, finally breaking free and flying off to “his next adventure,” as Smith put it. The highlight of the show, musically at least, was a searing if relatively brief and almost unrecotnizable take of Radio Ethiopia, opening with a misty, hypnotic wash of acoustic guitar and building to a firestorm where Smith lashed out at the Donald Trump camp for calling for Hillary Clinton’s execution. In a long, heated address to the crowd, Smith reasserted that “This isn’t the American way,” and railed at the media for being lapdogs to the Trump crowd. Ultimately, Smith’s message is what it’s always been: “We want peace, we want love, we want to be fucking free!”
From there, the dynamic sweep of the rest of the show ranged from a soft electric piano-driven easy-listening radio take of of Peaceable Kingdom, matched by a cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry, to the garage-rock energy of the Stones’ The Last Time. From there they made a familiar run-through of Because the Night and then hit an apt coda with People Have the Power. And then segued into the Who’s My Generation, complete with Shanahan doing a spot-on John Entwistle impersonation on the bass breaks, his treble turned all the way up. As the rhythm disintegrated and the band descended into a cauldron of noise, Smith alluded to the righteous wrath of Rock & Roll Nigger, but never ended up going there as the group left their instruments to feed into the amps. As she’d been doing all night, Smith chose a moment and let it speak for itself.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors may not have anything this politically charged coming up, but the rest of the festival is as excellent and eclectic as past years have been. Tonight features gospel and jazz; tomorrow there’s a concerto and a symphony by Mozart; Sunday has haunting psychedelic bolero band Miramar opening for salsa dura legends Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz. And that’s just this weekend. The secret to getting in seems to be not to wait for hours in the blasting heat before he gates open, but to show up about 45 minutes early, i.e. around 6:45 when the diehards are already seated.