Patti Smith raised her hand for railroad preservation at Thursday's Station to Station arts event in downtown St. Paul. / Star Tribune, Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Patti Smith raised her hand for railroad preservation at Thursday's Station to Station arts event in downtown St. Paul. / Star Tribune, Richard Tsong-Taatarii

“Long live the railway!” Patti Smith proclaimed as she took the stage Thursday night in downtown St. Paul. The declaration spoke to the location: Union Depot. The Capitol City’s historic and immaculately renovated (but still underutilized) railroad station was the fourth of nine stops on the Station to Station tour, a traveling arts caravan organized by artist Doug Aitken that’s working its way from New York to San Francisco by rail. Read our news report on the event here.

Smith was the star attraction in St. Paul, topping out a music lineup also featuring Eleanor Friedberger, No Age and White Mystery (other cities are seeing Beck, Mavis Staples, Suicide, Thurston Moore and Dan Deacon swapped in, among others). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame punk-poet, 66, brought along her guitarist son, Jackson Smith, for her only music accompaniment but wound up landing a few well-known local musicians for guest backers. Not that she had any idea who they were.

“I didn’t get their names,” Smith confessed as the first of her guests walked out on stage with a Gibson SG electric guitar in hand after she and Jackson opened with the rail-referencing “Blakean Year.”

“Gary,” the guy told her.

That would be Gary Louris of Jayhawks fame, who was also joined by local club stalwart Mark Mallman on piano (plus a rhythm section I didn’t recognize). Not that Smith should be chastised for failing to know Louris and Mallman, but not knowing any of her guest musicians’ names pointed to the messiness of her set and Station to Station on the whole -- which was a brilliant concept but poorly promoted and disorganized, even by hippie-dippie artists standards.

Smith herself proved less than easygoing when she shooed away the media photographers covering the event after two songs, chastising them for not paying the $25 cover (at least one was actually working for event co-sponsor Levi's). This, from an artist whose career was largely built on good press and photography.

She went with the flow of the event, though, and eventually found her groove halfway into the 40-minute set. “That’s the spirit of Station to Station: Jackson and I came alone, and now we’ve multiplied,” she said as her set got on track four songs in with “Beneath the Southern Cross,” featuring swelling, atmospheric guitar fills from Louris.

Before that, her cover of Neil Young’s “It’s Only a Dream” threatened to unravel numerous times. Her own classic “Redondo Beach” even had to be started it over, it was so messy with the makeshift band.  

After that, though, it turned into a full-tilt Patti Smith show – if only for three songs – starting with “Because the Night,” which Mallman kicked off and anchored. The infallibly rousing “People Have the Power” was the would-be finale, but the crowd didn’t leave nor shut up once the house lights went up. So Smith came back out and delivered the title track of her latest album, “Banga.” People really did have the power in this case.

Here’s a recap of the set list:

Blakean Year  /  It’s Only a Dream (Neil Young)  /  Redondo Beach  /  Beneath the Southern Cross  /  Because the Night  /  People Have the Power    ENCORE: Banga

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