It’s hard to think of an album whose lyrics and attitude remain every bit as fresh and vital with each passing year. Patti Smith‘s Horses is one of those rare albums, and on Wednesday night (Aug. 26) in New York City, the 68-year-old punk poet played her 40-year-old album in its entirety at Electric Lady Studios, in honor of the landmark’s 45th anniversary.
But it’s spite of all the numbers and anniversaries, nothing felt nostalgic, or even comfortable, about the performance. From the moment Smith spat out the first G of “Gloria” (not to mention the multiple times she literally spit sizable gobs on stage and into the audience), the room — big for a studio but incredibly intimate for a concert — crackled with a nervous, exhilarating ecstasy. It’s thrilling enough to hear Smith’s uncompromising sneer on record; it’s awe-inspiring to see her bellowing a full-throated “Glooooo-reee-a!” into the microphone just feet away from you (btw, her voice hasn’t diminished with age). For the first time in my life, I understood what the Old Testament describes as the terrifying glory of God — I found myself crying during “Redondo Beach,” as much from joy as from Wayne’s World-esque feelings of “I’m not worthy.”
Given the nature of the album and the event, the concert could have been a rather serious (albeit rocking) affair, but Smith made sure it wasn’t. She joked about flipping over the record from side A to B after wrapping a fiery “Free Money,” and after mangling a word at the top of “Birdland” (which starts with, “His father died and left him a little farm in New England”), she told the band to start over and deadpanned, “His dad is gonna have to die again.”
Smith even made a crack about one of the celebrity guests in attendance. After inviting the audience to sing the titular line of “Break It Up” with her, she recalled relishing hearing a small Polish town sing her words back to her at a recent-ish gig. “It was like being at an R.E.M. concert,” she said with a smirk, casting a glance at attendee Michael Stipe. It was a loving joke, of course, and when she reprised the chorus of “Gloria” during “Land,” she walked over to Stipe, leaned on him and made him shout a “Glooor-reee-a” into the mic for good measure.
Before wrapping with “Elegie,” Smith explained how she wrote the delicate dirge after finding out about Jimi Hendrix‘s death — fitting, since the show was to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Electric Lady Studios opening (which Smith was present for, as detailed in Just Kids). She extended the three-minute album track into a longer tribute to lost rock warriors, respectfully reading their names — including her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and King of New York Lou Reed — into the microphone. It felt like a much cooler version of the Litany of the Saints at a Catholic mass.
Despite ending with a list of the lost, the intimate concert from the peerless rock icon was full of more life, fire and spit than practically any other show I’ve ever seen. It will be interesting to see if that comes across on wax when Electric Lady Records issues the concert on vinyl as its first-ever release, or if it’s one of those situations where the electricity was more in the air than on the recording.
Regardless, the concert left a room full of celebrities (Arcade Fire‘s Win Butler, Liv Tyler, Natasha Lyonne and Dakota Johnson were also in attendance) and professional rock snobs speechless with joy. Four decades after it entered the world, Horses remains the most exciting union of rock and poetry on record — and its power to make you feel fully alive hasn’t diminished one iota.