Patti Smith, live at the Albert Hall

she didn't call it "royal" either night

Patti Smith, live at the Albert Hall

how many holes etc.

The Royal Albert Hall is a fantastical birthday cake of a venue, sitting round and regal across from Hyde Park. It looms large in the legend of music fans around the globe because of the kinds of special performances that have been staged there, but also of course because of its namecheck in “A Day In The Life.” Like, I can fully understand how the concept of wondering how many holes it would take to fill it would pop into the mind of a Beatle while indulging in illicit substances. It is fairy tale fodder for anyone who grew up with the British Invasion in any decade, in real time or not.

And this was the place Patti Smith and her Band were going to perform for the first time, after two postponements and a global pandemic. You either walked through the streets of Kensington or alit from a red double-decker bus to arrive. It didn’t feel real, especially returning to a foreign country after two years of not going anywhere much.

The band made their entrance and then, after a moment, Patti walked to center stage to the right level of applause, full of respect and excitement and enthusiasm. Spotlight shining down, she held two sheets of paper in her left hand and uttered one of many lines guaranteed to make everyone in this place sit up and pay attention:

Sixteen and time to pay off

That line, that unmistakable first line, the line that immediately pulls you into her place and her mindset, that line that opened her first major piece of work, the 45 rpm single of “Piss Factory” b/w “Hey Joe,” financed by Robert Mapplethorpe and recorded at Electric Lady. It was astonishment and goosebumps and pinch me is this really happening? It was also drop-dead silent, but the kind of unified electric quiet that signifies that everyone is paying attention. I notice the beautiful waves in Patti’s hair, the drape of a new black jacket, and her hands shaking from nerves. It’s a special room; it’s a big night; she’s waited 75 years to get here, and this gig has already been postponed twice. I hate that she’s nervous but I also love that she’s nervous, it’s reassuring on some level that even Patti Smith can be slightly intimidated for the right reason.

But it doesn’t last long. She gets to the second page, she gets to I got something to hide here call desire and her hand holding the words drops to her side and she takes off her glasses and her voice slots into place, she finishes the poem from memory and the crowd is willing her on, a small murmur, encouraging, arising from the energy she is manifesting.



The applause is breathtaking, and buoys her and us into the set, starting with a perfect version of “Free Money,” sinuous and powerful. “Grateful” is prefaced with a thank you to an audience who has held onto their tickets for two years. “Redondo Beach” is dedicated to Lee “Scratch” Perry. I’ve become very fond of her version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It On The Sun,” and find it often rolling through my brain because she inhabits it so well, I think. Patti acknowledges her nerves to the audience, and there are some small disconnects with the band, notably during “Southern Cross,” where it seems like she is doing more work to conduct and connect the band than she usually has to, and that shifts the energy a little bit. But “Ain’t It Strange” pulls everything back together, which buoys us into the close of the set, “Pissing In A River” and then “Land”/”Gloria.” Something splits open after the first few lines of “Land,” the moment when Johnny is surrounded by horses, and some of the audience spill out of their rows and down the aisles and to the front of the stage.

in my Blakean year.

in my Blakean year.

The first few rows tonight are mostly women who have been ecstatic and excited, and so when the ambush happens, all I can think is, girls to the front. It’s not a lazy cascade of people just wanting to be close and holding their phones in the air, it is an act of energy and communion, and it inspires the rest of the building to stand up and join in. By the time we get to “Gloria” and we are all shouting the chorus together, it physically and psychically feels like those days decades ago when you’d walk into a club or a theater to see a band and have a physical reaction of homecoming and comfort and the sheer realization that you were not the only one that cared about this music and that sense of electric unity that would bind the audience together. Yes, British punk was completely different than American punk in many ways but it was still people who didn’t fit in anywhere else asserting their rights to exist and create. We were fighting much of the same things. We were on the same side. In 2021, that is not a small thing to feel again.


“People Have The Power” is fine and good and right, but it’s not the last song in the set; as she did in the show in Bath a few days earlier, the show ends with a cover of “Not Fade Away.” It’s a perfect choice in that it derives from the same pool of music that drew Patti and Lenny together initially. It’s open and loose and feels more like the Dead’s version than anything else; I have spent a lot of time since the show thinking about why this song was chosen, and I think it’s both about “love is real/not fade away” as a kind of cosmic assertion and both as an assertion of place and existence for her and the band, both to and from the audience. No matter what the intention, it is the perfect end to the evening because it takes us back from the massive global anthem to a smaller, more intimate emotional interchange.

Arriving for night two felt indulgent; we get to do this again? But it was a very different night, with Patti relaxed and no longer apprehensive about the room and the job. She walked out waving and smiling, and went straight into “Dancing Barefoot.” (Did you know that it is her most-covered song? More than “Because The Night” because BTN is much harder to sing.) The setlist is shuffled in a way that makes more sense energetically, both physically and emotionally; I don’t think it’s better, it’s just different. But I do credit its construction to the ability of Patti to deliver a version of “Birdland” five songs in that is likely the best version of that song I have ever witnessed.

“Birdland” was always the song I was amazed was still in the setlist 20 years later. It requires her to construct a very specific psychic landscape and it’s one of the songs where the pictures in my head are the clearest. But in “Birdland” she has to switch between narrator and subject and she does it tonight with such control and intensity that we are hanging on every single note. At the end of the song, I look at the friend next to me and we shake our heads in disbelief. The gentleman on the other side of me says something like “Well, I can go home now” and when I look at him he asks, “That was quite good, wasn’t it? I assure him that it was indeed. “Free Money” is knife-sharp, and the recent versions of “Ain’t It Strange” are just mind-blowing. She conjures malice and abandon and locks into a groove with Lenny that feels like something we would have seen back in the day, except this rendition is borne from someone who has lived a life. Witnessing this performance was spine-chilling; not because she is 75 years old but because it was phenomenal, period.

transcend transcend
transcend transcend

Tonight, Patti was chatty and ebullient throughout the evening, telling us about Thomas Paine and William Blake, sparring easily with drunk shouters, answering questions about whether she’d caught up with her British detective shows yet. She revels in the back and forth and her timing is always on point; she will continue a conversation between songs the whole night, and none of it phased her.

I was so, so glad to realize that the next song was “Because The Night.” I was honestly surprised it wasn’t in the set the first night because if any song deserved to be sung in this room, it was definitely this one. In some live versions, she tends to lean towards presenting the song as A Great Rock Ballad -- which it is! -- but tonight it was just about performing a great fucking song that she fucking co-wrote and made hers. We sung along. We raised our fists.

The final cascade was the same, except that she introduced “One Too Many Mornings” as a Bob Dylan song (although I did quite like the shouts of affirmation from the crowd when they figured out what it was the previous night; the UK knows their Dylan). The stage was invaded once again for “Land” and “Gloria” will always be the best thing to sing with a crowd of several thousand people losing their marbles. I was hoping once again for “Not Fade Away” after “People Have The Power” and I was absolutely not fucking prepared to hear the intro to “My Generation.”

“My Generation.” I was thinking of the horrified rock bros who were angry that that chick had dared to touch their sacred cow back in the day but mostly I was thinking that I was standing in the Royal Albert Hall and listening to a Who song. I love the Rolling Stones but I embraced them much later than I did the Who, who were my first real band as a teenager, the ones I obsessed over and championed and adored beyond belief. I am in England, the place that seemed like dreamland back then, the first country I travelled to on my own in my 20’s. I am hearing this song in this room, in this place, in this time. It’s not a reminder that Patti and Lenny saw the same things in the British Invasion that we later did -- which again, was being part of what she had been referring to all night as “that tribe of dissenters” - and the rebellion and the freedom we took when we discovered those bands later is the same rebellion and freedom that they took and then later built a band on. “I don’t need that fucking shit/hope I die because of it,” she sang, true to the PSG’s revision; except tonight she corrected herself; “I hope I live; I hope I live to be a thousand,” she snarled into the mic as she flung her black Fender strat towards the amp and then ripped its strings off.

So do we, Patti. So do we.

There are more photographs from my week in the UK over on my Instagram and another newsletter forthcoming shortly about other aspects of the trip. Thanks as always for reading.