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Can't Help Falling in Love: Patti Smith Captivates At Cardiff's Festival of Voice

Tuesday, 12 June 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photos: Janire Najera

It took almost 50 years to build St. John the Evangelist in Canton, a mile or so from the centre of Cardiff. Some parts of the church came together relatively quickly, including the nave and the aisles, but others took time.

Underneath the building’s backlit arches, Patti Smith lets a small crowd see the pieces of her that fell into place along the way. Five decades on from her first spoken word sets with Lenny Kaye at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, she delivers poetry about romance, art and political decay, and sings some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.

Smith is the owner of one of the most interesting careers in popular music - an odyssey taking in New York at its most unhinged and inventive, punk in its infancy and ascendancy, and classic rock at a time when it was innovative and exciting - but she is an entirely warm, welcoming presence.

It’s apparent that on a very honest level she remains a fan of people, and particularly other artists. It’s here that we’re all on the same page: Patti Smith the icon and us, the audience who finished work a couple of hours ago and walked to a show through familiar terraced streets.

Smith’s work has always posited that caring is a good thing; that saying we love something is an act of defiance. Tonight she reads a poem written in the early ‘70s and inspired by the cop show Dragnet, while she also speaks about the indifference that stared down the work of William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh during their lifetimes. She is earnest at a time when irony is eroding our ability to say that we appreciate something without conditions.

Smith’s fandom is the opposite of High Fidelity’s snobbish, reductive ‘what really matters is what you like, not what you are like’. It’s not about high and low culture, it’s about the reality of finding a connection with something. She adores the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, idolises the Beats, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. She cried for Brian Jones. She loved Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the US remake of the Killing. She enjoys the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour.

One of the night’s most charming interludes finds her recounting a crush she had on Detroit Tigers catcher Lance Parrish, who stood behind the plate for the best part of 10 years as the team’s ace, Jack Morris, sent down the pitches that made him a hero to Smith and her late husband, the MC5’s Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.

Introducing the night’s final poem, sandwiched by Dancing Barefoot and Because The Night, two songs written for Smith, she says: “I wrote this when he was my boyfriend. He will always be my boyfriend.” The crowd cheers.

For Smith, being out there on stage is partly about this sort of emotional response, but it’s also about forming a link in a chain with the writers who opened her eyes to life beyond the prosaic. If you buy into that idea with her, then any moment of a show, or a record, can become a diamond.

When she speaks of Blake and Van Gogh prior to My Blakean Year, she gestures to the crowd about the importance of self-expression and the fact that they kept to their task through to the end of their lives. Smith will more than likely do the same. Her voice is rich, powerful and unmistakeable, while she prefaces a polemic aimed at the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with a statement about trying to do what she can with her pen.

The songs she intersperses throughout the evening represent different sides to her writing, from a celebratory Because The Night through a cut glass rendition of her 1996 lament Wing. Rounding off Ghost Dance, from ‘Easter’, she invites us to “shake out the ghost” alongside her. It’s as goofy as the song is serious, and sums up the atmosphere in the room neatly.

Her set at St. John’s is part of Cardiff’s Festival of Voice, and Smith isn’t alone on the running order when it comes to those who derive worth from appreciation and reinvention. You also have Gwenno Saunders, who has made space-pop from the ancient sounds of the Welsh and Cornish languages, Gruff Rhys, indie star turned searching multi-disciplinary artist, and Angélique Kidjo, who has reframed another great record by a New York band, Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, through its influences in African music. All of them appear to be subscribers to Smith’s belief that people will always create, out of both desire and necessity.

As she signs off with a communal run through Can’t Help Falling in Love, a Smith quote from Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s classic oral history of New York punk, springs to mind: “Everything I write has a motive behind it. I write the same way I perform. I mean, you only perform because you want people to fall in love with you. You want them to react to you."

The final note dies out. People are on their feet, clapping and shouting in appreciation.

Patti bashfully covers her face with a book.

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