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MusicLive ShotsLive Shots: Patti Smith 'Howl's at Stern Grove (and...

Live Shots: Patti Smith ‘Howl’s at Stern Grove (and a festive crowd howls back)

The rock legend read Allen Ginsberg and launched into career favorites for an ecstatic crowd at the packed park.

With the sun shining and dragonflies zipping around, colorful parasols, face-painted kids, and festive libations dotted the meadows and hills for the penultimate summer 2023 Stern Grove show on Sunday, August 13.

Patti Smith—poet, musician, keen observer—opened her show acknowledging the trials and tribulations of the crowd members who arrived early. Next, wishing City Lights Bookstore a happy 70th birthday as a purveyor of “spiritual food,” she read “Sunflower Sutra” from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Smith’s choice of Ginsberg’s words reminded us that, “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside.” In the poem, Ginsberg stands to “deliver [his] sermon to [his] soul, and Jack’s [Kerouac] soul too, and anyone who’ll listen.” Similarly, Smith’s show illustrated the power of poetry and music to speak truth and offer hope.

Her first song of the set was “Waiting Underground,” interspersed with a riff on Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Sunday’s iteration acknowledged the desperation of today: “hope…/Down the drain of your humankind” and the “best minds” of a generation both wracked by loss. Even with “everything exploding,” Smith reminded us, “we can build it back again” with poetry, empathy, electric guitar and a Marshall amp.

With her longtime band of Lenny Kaye and her son Jackson Smith on guitar, Tony Shanahan on bass, and Jay Dee Dauherty on drums, Smith saluted workers, told stories, and sometimes played acoustic guitar. The capacity crowd were thrilled to hear “My Blakean Year” “Summer Cannibals,” “I Had too Much to Dream (Last Night),” “Nine” and, of course, “Because the Night,” among others.

It was an afternoon of stories. Kaye shared a long-ago San Francisco experience involving a Grateful Dead concert before launching into his rendition of “The Golden Road.” After this song, looking across the grove, Smith said the people assembled to hear her were like, “a million flowers moving through the trees.”

Introducing “Beneath the Southern Cross,” Smith explained that the song is both one of remembrance of so many we have lost recently, and a song of life. Song (and by extension, all art) remains a “living aspect” of the artist in her eyes, and to whit, her work and references seemed both historical and timely.

Early arrivals had San Francisco DJ Allyson Baker to thank for an eclectic set to match the varied crowd. Opening for Smith, Bob Mould (a Castro resident who says he doesn’t listen to “people who hate on the city,”) offered his “stand and deliver” style performance with only vocals and electric guitar. Working through Hüsker Dü favorites like “I Apologize” and his own pieces such as “Next Generation” and “Voices in My Head,” Mould’s crunchy guitar sound filled the grove. Just before closing his set, Mould told his own Patti Smith story of waiting for the legend to sign his record as a young man.

It was just one of the afternoon’s tales that exemplify how even in the wide world, our paths continue to cross and intersect. —words by Patty Riek, photos by Jon Bauer

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