Patti Smith fans, long starved for in-concert material, have seen a veritable tidal wave of live releases lately — including three albums between 2005-08 and then the Live in France DVD from last year.
Still, the Festival des Vieilles Charrues film, welcome though it no doubt was, suffered because of bad video quality. That issue is rectified on the sparkling Live at Montreax, the newly issued DVD/Blu-ray from Eagle Rock. Some might bristle over the absence of Smith’s radically reworked take on “Gloria,” the stunning opener from her acclaimed 1975 debut album Horses, but she’s brought something else along that proves far more intriguing: Television guitarist Tom Verlaine.
Smith, of course, used to alternate sets with Television back in the embryonic CBGB days, and Verlaine later worked with Smith on albums like Easter and Gone Again. His sense of proportion and style here reflects both their long-standing relationship — and the ease of creation that friendship brings. Live at Montreux is, in many ways, a more vivid experience because of the fizzy sense of improvisational newness that Verlaine brings to even the most familiar songs here. And when he is afforded his own spotlight, during an extended solo segment on “Dancing Barefoot,” Verlaine moves across a stunning range of emotion — unleashing torrents of sound and then curling, deeply introspective exclamations, and then barking riffs. Talk about losing all sense of gravity. What’s even more amazing is that all of this happens while Verlaine sits unobtrusively off to the left of the spotlight, in a chair.
And yet, because of their sense of friendly symbiosis, Verlaine never takes anything away from Smith, who dives headline into a career-spanning set alongside guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Tony Shanahan and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Live at Montreux was recorded in 2005 as Smith was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Horses, and in keeping the set begins with the hiccupping, reggae asides of “Redondo Beach.” Later, they also revisit the wigged-out, free-form poetry slam that is “Free Money.” Smith is even sporting the Mapplethorpe-shot cover’s iconic white shirt and skinny black tie. But there’s more to Live at Montreux, which takes both a long view on her career — even as it stays bracingly topical.
Over its 12 cuts, Smith touches on songs from eight different albums, stretching from the mid-1970s through to her then-new effort Trampin.’ 1978′s Easter, perhaps the best ever Patti Smith Group album, provides both “25th Floor” (still a gravelly series of eye pokes) and her take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” (which has become an opportunity for a lusty singalong). First-gen followers will also thrill to “Ain’t It Strange” from 1976′s Radio Ethiopia, which boasts an elastic new buoyancy.
“Seven Waves of Going,” which like “Dancing Barefoot” first appeared on 1979′s Wave, finds Smith taking up the clarinet — and then, in a moment befitting the setting at jazz-crazy Montreux, she proceeds to take the horn out to its farthest edges. Verlaine also makes notable contributions to “Beneath the Southern Cross,” from 1996′s Gone Again, adding these echoing, deeply emotional asides — like question marks after ever half-spoken, half-sung line.
But, lest this become too enmeshed in comfy nostalgia, Smith melds a weirdly hypnotic version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (completed by Smith’s squalling hobo harmonica) with “Momento Mori,” from 1997′s Peace and Noise. Then there’s “Peaceable Kingdom,” a devastating rumination on loss from Trampin,’ released in 2004. That track and the set-closing “People Have the Power” from 1988′s Dream of Life (not to mention her raucous, at times hilariously imitative version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) point to a simmering anger over the newly begun Iraq War.