Patti Smith made her long-awaited return to Milwaukee Thursday night, taking the stage of a Milwaukee venue (the Milwaukee Theatre) for the first time in 38 years. She treated fans to her iconic album Horses in its entirety along with other beloved hits. The moment Smith spoke her first word into the microphone, the eager audience knew they were in for one hell of a ride.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” she began with “Gloria,” the first track off Horses. Her words cut the crowd like a knife, rolling off her tongue with her signature sharpness. Her flawless stage presence demanded the attention of every single person in the room. Her movements were perfectly in sync with the music. Her long, silver hair shimmered under the colorful stage lighting.
As she danced around the stage, she didn’t seem slightly out of breath. At age 70, Smith still has the same energy that earned her the infamous “Godmother of Punk” title. The backdrop behind her was the Horses album cover—a 42-year-old, often romanticized image from the proto-punk era that made Smith a seminal rock figure. It’s hard to think about that part of Smith’s life when she’s performing live, present and raw as ever.
The entire audience was in awe of Smith’s legendary way with words. No one was on their phones or whispering in between songs. There was total silence when Smith wasn’t speaking. Everyone was completely captivated, eager to hear what her next musing would be.
After she finished belting out “Free Money,” she silenced the crowd’s ecstatic cheering. “That was side A. Now we have to take the record, turn it around, put it on the turntable, take the arm, put the needle in the groove…and play side B.”
Side B revealed a more relaxed side of Smith. Her movements became fluid as she continued to sway to the music and laugh with her bandmembers. She did something most performers as renowned as her never do when they play live shows: engage with the audience. She teased a fan for filming her performance instead of watching, and wryly returned an “I love you!” from an anonymous crowd member.
In between songs, Smith shared some personal stories with the audience. She explained her songwriting process for “Break It Up,” a song she wrote with Tom Verlaine after having a dream about Jim Morrison. She encouraged the audience to sing along with her. No one dared disobey Patti Smith.
After the band finished up Horses, Smith dedicated “Ghost Dance” to those fighting at Standing Rock. The song was a perfect transition into the second half of the set, where she became more personal and much more political.
March 9 is a very special day in Smith’s life—and not only because it was officially “Patti Smith Day” in Milwaukee. Smith shared the totally rock ‘n’ roll love story of meeting her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith (of MC5) on March 9, 1976 in Detroit. (“Fred Smith, Patti Smith. Patti Smith, Fred Smith!”) She continued to perform a “Fred trilogy” of songs that she dedicated to Mr. Smith: “Dancing Barefoot,” the rarely performed “Frederick,” and “Because The Night.” The trilogy was overwhelmingly emotional, but her performance wasn’t sad in the least. She sang the love songs with a twinkle in her eye.
Smith finished up her set with “Citizen Ship” and “People Have The Power.” She continued to rile up the crowd, encouraging peace, love, and resistance. “People have the power. Don’t forget it. Use your powers!” she lamented.
The highlight of the night was her encore, an energetic-as-ever cover of The Who’s “My Generation.” Though the entire night was powerful, this performance was the cherry on top of a flawless show. She used Pete Townshend’s snarky lyrics about teenage rebellion to make statements about President Trump and the people in her own generation who elected him. She reminded the audience yet again that we will never stop fighting in the face of oppression. She held up her electric guitar and screamed, “This is our idea of a fucking weapon!”
In the hands of Patti Smith, a guitar could kill. Her words are lethal, and her legacy is immortal.