Stick around long enough and you inevitably amass your fair share of ghosts. Patti Smith has more than most. The singer/writer/photographer/inspirer lost her best friend and co-conspirator, Robert Mapplethorpe, on March 9, 1989. Each year since, she celebrates his memory with a concert on the anniversary of his death.
With a much-ballyhooed photography exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Smith has been ubiquitous in Toronto lately. A series of engagements had her in town for most of the week. So, rather than head back to New York, she stuck around for one more evening.
As it happens, March 9 is also the day that Smith met her late husband, MC5's Fred "Sonic" Smith. Still, despite the body count, Smith turned the show into a celebration, punctuating it with readings from her memoir about Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, taking questions from the crowd and telling comic tales about New Jersey rivalries.
The gig began as a laid-back affair, kicking off with the acoustic-driven "April Fool." Taken from last year's Banga, the track quelled any greatest-hits apprehensions, though those would turn up too.
Given the setting — a theatre that has more in common with a lecture hall than a rock venue — and the drum-less setup, the show could have remained relatively sedate. In fact, "Redondo Beach" and a country-infused "Wing" kept the pace at a brisk walk rather than a jog. But the grower of a set list did a deft job of building steam. Thus, a rousing "Frederick" and a grand "Dancing Barefoot" upped the ante, spurring in-aisle dancing.
Wry and eloquent, Smith was charming and humble throughout. Showing off her vocal dexterity, she dialed up the pretty twang on piano ballad "This is the Girl," yet went caustic and loud for a stirring "Banga." Standout, the harrowing "Pissing in a River," saw her at her most passionate and desperate, culling a no-brainer standing ovation.
Turning her biggest hit, "Because the Night," into a story about a tardy boyfriend and a reluctant Springsteen collaboration, Smith kept the tone light despite the occasion.
Moreover, with a three-piece band that included son Jackson and daughter Jesse, she did a sly job of blending the past, present and future. A wholly engaging gig, it was at turns moving, funny, poignant and raucous.