Patti Smith, the poet laureate of punk rock, never has been one to hold her tongue.
"I haven't seen so many people without a mask since the Republican convention," Smith said early Saturday night at the Surly Brewing Festival Field in Minneapolis, shortly after she took off her own face mask.
Smith urged pandemic public safety. And, as always, she urged people to dream, vote, strike, love, create and "use your voice." The Rock Hall of Famer and award-winning memoirist mixed politics with poetry and rhythmic rock 'n' roll in a sometimes emotional, sometimes artful, occasionally ragged and ultimately winning 100-minute outdoor performance.
In her first Twin Cities appearance in four years, Smith gave shout-outs to recently departed Minnesota musician friends Grant Hart and Tony Glover as well as Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia, whom she said was born on Aug. 1 and died on Aug. 9 so she was still celebrating the nine-day Jerry Week.
Smith saluted Bob Dylan, though she didn't acknowledge that she was in his home state or that she had a role in accepting his Nobel Prize for literature (she sang his "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at the ceremony he didn't attend in Stockholm but she flubbed the lyrics).
She did deliver "A Hard Rain" on Saturday, with eyeglasses and a hand-held lyric sheet. As the wordy broadside carried on and on, her urgency increased. "Where black is the color," she shouted with piercing vitriol, "where none is the number." Her clenching of her fists, her imploring "c'mon" to the crowd to sing the chorus and her shouting the coda "Bob Dylan, long may he prevail" all spoke to the potency and intensity of this reading.
During the rest of the set, Smith seemed to be at her most potent when revisiting material from early in her career. She opened with "Redondo Beach," the hip-swaying reggae groover from her magnificent 1975 debut album "Horses." Does any rocker — let alone one who is 74 years old — dance with more interpretive grace and soulfulness to their own music?
Her intoxicating mashup of "Land" and "Gloria," also from "Horses," was the unquestionable highlight, complete with an ad-libbed poetic rant about COVID-19. Two other oldies, "Pissing in the River" and "Dancing Barefoot," also invigorated the crowd of 3,500.
For a change of pace, Smith's longtime collaborator, guitarist Lenny Kaye, offered a medley of the Rolling Stones' "I'm Free" and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," which he dedicated to Soul Asylum, "my favorite Minneapolis band." Smith's band also featured longtime members Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Tony Shanahan on keyboards and bass plus her son, guitarist Jackson Smith, who did a nifty Garcia-esque solo on "Grateful."
In concert, Smith always shares what's on her mind. In a humorous moment Saturday, she mock-apologized for spitting on the stage and then cleaned up after herself with a towel. In a more serious note, she pointed out that on Friday night in Evanston, Ill., she got to play only seven songs (before rain cut things short) in her first U.S. gig since March 2020. In Minneapolis, the set list stretched to 14 selections.
Saturday was not the most satisfying of Smith's Twin Cities appearances, which date back to a poetry reading in 1972 at Walker Art Center. She has presented memorable shows at First Avenue, and it would be hard to top her 2017 Northrop concert in which she performed "Horses" in its entirety and another 50 minutes of her transcendent art. Saturday's performance dragged at times, lacked momentum and ended in frustration.
Smith's microphone wasn't working during much of the encore of "People Have the Power," her always liberating and empowering anthem from 1988. Why did it take her sound engineer so long to notify her of the problem and correct it?
"I was wondering, something great must have happened," she joked. "You got rid of me."
Then she refocused and kicked the concert into overdrive, blending song and poetry, politics and hope, imploring the faithful about their power. "We can turn the world around," she said. "Don't forget it. Use. Your. Voice."
Smith is still using hers, fiercely and artfully, after all these years.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719