The thrill of seeing Patti Smith on Thursday, Nov. 10—the 30th anniversary of her debut album, Horses—in a relatively small and exclusive setting was offset just slightly by the fact that the setting was an overlit basement ballroom of the Renaissance Seattle Hotel. Also slightly offsetting the thrill was Johnette Napolitano—seated onstage with Rockrgrl's Carla DeSantis, Smith producer Sandy Pearlman, guitarist Lenny Kaye, and journalist Ann Powers—clapping inappropriately and making devil horns during Smith's acceptance of the magazine's Woman of Valour award. But only just slightly.
In the speeches that preceded Smith's acceptance of Rockrgrl's lifetime achievement award, Powers, Pearlman, and Kaye spoke to the power of Smith's sexy sexlessness (one woman in the audience yelled out, "Patti's a slut," and everyone cringed) and her adroit, organic observations and calls to action. (Napolitano didn't say much—except that she'd be brief since others were abusing their speaking privileges!) Taking the mike, Smith apologized for being inarticulate and worn out from her cross-country trip, explaining that while she doesn't typically take part in these kinds of things, she surprised her lawyer (through whom Rockrgrl made the request) by accepting the invitation because she was touched that her career was being recognized and wanted to be there in person to accept. The woman who sang in "Rock N Roll Nigger" that "outside of society/That's where I want to be" has come a long way, and she seemed truly gratified by the experience of being honored in that badly lit basement.
Moving stage left with Kaye where they both grabbed acoustic guitars, Smith said they would perform as they did for the first time in the Village 35 years ago. "We didn't plan nothing," she said, smiling as she began picking out the notes for "My Blakean Year" from 2004's Trampin'. Kaye followed and it seemed, for a while, that he was watching Smith's fingers for cues—she did write "Blakean Year" by herself. But I realized in the next song, "Redondo Beach," which Kaye co-wrote with her for Horses—and which Kaye played alone while Smith just sang—that he was simply tuned into the middle of her, where the music is likely stored.
Pausing between songs, Smith mentioned stopping by EMP, where she "said hello" to the mixing board from Electric Lady Studios on which Horses was recorded, and noted that the clams she'd had for lunch down on the waterfront would have "been run out of town in South Jersey."
Smith and Kaye played "Crossover," "Free Money," and "Gandhi" before ending with "Wings" from her 1996 return, Gone Again. Throughout the set, her voice wound velvet ribbons and seamlessly spoke sharp, percussive poetry. The pair's effortless dynamic and instructive songs said what her acceptance speech didn't about the needlessness of gender roles, the necessity of consistency, and the innate existence of equality—when and if you're open to it.