Station to Station with Patti Smith at Union Depot, 9/12/13
Station to Station with Patti Smith, Eleanor Friedberger, No Age, and White Mystery Union Depot Thursday, September 12, 2013
Although it doesn't do it complete justice, the tagline for Doug Aitken's experimental traveling circus Station to Station works as a terse summation of the evening: "A public art project made possible by Levis®".
Staging an abbreviated rock concert against the backdrop of St. Paul's gorgeous new Union Station was no doubt a stroke of genius, and the organizers certainly did an admirable job of searching out visual and performance artists to compliment the music. But in spite of all the event's highfalutin' artistic aspirations, it was tough to shake the feeling that we were a part of an admirably well-disguised marketing project.
Nobody really knew what to expect when Station to Station rolled into our Silver City. Each of the tour's nine "happenings" were billed with an almost completely unique set of musicians, performers, and art pieces housed in several locations along America's crisscrossing network of railways. Ours was the last stop in the Midwest, and the only one to feature the godmother of punk herself, Patti Smith, which definitely succeeded in flattering our collective Minnesota inferiority complex. Roughly one-third music and two-thirds art-shindig, Station to Station was definitely a unique experience for a town known for meat-and-potatoes three-band rock shows, and it brought out the hipsteratti in droves.
Stationing miniature galleries and stages in four colorful yurts on Union Station's front steps outside of the official ticketed area, the STS made a welcome early bid for public appeal by allowing the locals to experience some of the event free of charge. As a rock journalist, I'm not even going to attempt to judge the quality or content of the myriad of performance art pieces that drifted through the evening, except to say that I found local luminary Kate Casanova's piece Vivarium Americana to be quite affecting. A gleaming, clean black 1976 AMC Pacer with it's interior completely overwhelmed by the growth of thousands of oyster mushrooms, the piece perverted the automotive lust so natural to every American with a beautifully eerie fungus.
Other attempts to make this a "happening" included a modern dance troupe rolling across the floor and benches of the Depot's waiting areas with armfuls of vegetation, and even "growing" around a bemused and unsuspecting bystander. Printwork from local and national minds adorned walls that would normally be filled with train schedules, and a nice selection of art-films graced the three massive screens behind the impressive stage set up in the rear of the station.
Openers White Mystery from Chicago rattled the rafters to begin the night with a swampy garage rock stomp that cut through the pretentious surroundings like a hot knife. Imagine an inverted White Stripes from their DeStilj era when they were still "brother and sister," but redheads. Siblings Alex and Francis White have some of the same blues predilections and punk ferocity of their power-duo forebears, but none of the simmering tension that Jack and Meg where known for. Instead the band's short but charming set showcased Alex's Joplin-esque howl and impressive guitar playing as well as the grinning, familial chemistry between the pair. Aiming to make a serious impression with their STS-mandated 15-minute set, White Mystery threw their whole bodies into the performance, finishing with a climactic crash-out that involved Alex lifting her guitar like a dumbell and tearing a string straight out of it while feedback squalled and Francis dismantled his drumset with extreme prejudice.
From there, things started to get a bit fuzzier. I missed No Age's performance in the confusing jumble of screenings and performances. No official set times were marked, because apparently that would have made things too structured, man. I guess we were supposed to free ourselves from the subjugation of time, or something.
Clad in what had to be a Levis® branded Canadian Tuxedo, former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger struck out with her new band in a refreshing diversion from her more theatrical previous works. Still promoting her new album Personal Record, Friedberger made an excellent case for herself with a great display of songwriting talent and cool stage poise. Somewhere in between Todd Rundgren's loopy pop sensibility and the more hard-edged new wave of The Pretenders, the new songs have a distinct 70s vibe but never felt retro. Unfortunately, like White Mystery, Eleanor and her band were gone almost as quickly as they started, making way for more art film.
As the room began to fill, expensive video cameras and DSLRs buzzed around the stage like flies on a picnic, many of them on the Levis dime, no doubt, and chronicling the event for posterity and future commercial potential. The house lights shut off for a bizarre spoken word/performance art piece involving a smoky voiced gospel singer, a motor-mouthed cowboy-hat wearing auctioneer and a guy cracking two bullwhips wandering through the crowd, the purpose of which was utterly lost on me. It did serve as a nice timesuck until the Patti set began, and Station to Station finally began to make sense.
There are some artists have so much "it" that they practically electrify the air around them, and the legendary Patti Smith is indeed one of them. From the moment the gray-haired Godmother of Punk trotted out onstage with her son Jackson, the room was completely hers. Beginning with a dedication to "architects of the past and future" including Michael Bjorn, who handled the revitalization of Union Depot, Smith began her set with an acoustic version of "My Blakean Year". Against the backdrop of films of train tracks, Smith intoned ominously about the death of buffalo and the railroad and strummed her guitar with support from her unsurprisingly talented son.
Patti was everything we had hoped for and more. Wryly hilarious and defiant, she is the epitome of rock'n'roll magnetism, the kind of unique talent that can make spitting onstage look like a revelation. Glibly welcoming former Jayhawk Gary Louris to the stage as a surprise guest by pretending she forgot his name for a take on Neil Young's "It's a Dream," Smith dispensed with the show's acoustic trappings blessedly quickly. The song showcased some gorgeous guitar interplay from Louris and Jackson, but the best moments were yet to come.
Welcoming Mark Mallman and a rhythm section simply introduced as "Justin and Josh", Smith haughtily shooed away photographers away from the pit after her third song, asserting that they could stay there when they payed the $25 entrance fee like everyone else. Beginning a ramshackle but thoroughly charming take on "Redondo Beach," "for the girls," Patti seemed to loosen up a bit and start enjoying herself, smiling broadly during a false start and even doing a cute little two-step shuffle. "Beneath the Southern Cross" from Gone Again followed, and the band really hit it's stride during the song's epic climax, with Louris doing a fantastic Lenny Kaye impression on his Gibson. Smith put both fists in the sky and ordered the crowd to do the same, shouting "Raise your arms! You are free!"
The crowd, which had been standing with its collective mouth agape all night finally found their voices during "Because the Night", which began with a stellar take on the piano intro by Mallman. The song was introduced by Smith as a dedication to her late husband and Jackson's father, MC5's seminal guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. With a nod to her adopted hometown, Patti declared "If I was president I'd close Guantanamo, and I wouldn't be pumping money into Syria, I'd be pumping money into Detroit." Needless to say, the crowd backed her with a roar, and the performer's biggest commercial hit also appeared to be the fan favorite. Smith seemed to feed off the energy, grinning and even indulging in a bit of stadium-rock-esque posturing like the song's co-writer, Bruce Springsteen.
With the audience now firmly in their grasp, Smith and her band closed with a stirring take on "People Have the Power." Willing the crowd to stand up against the military, unethical governments and corporations with both fists pumping, Patti showed exactly why she's a punk rock legend. With a clear, full voice seemingly unencumbered by her years, the singer shattered the shallow hipness of her surroundings with the full force of her spirit, and for a brief, shining moment, even as the vulture-like cameras circled, everyone forgot that they were being sold jeans and just rocked out.
But just like that, it was over, with barely six songs played, and the band walked off stage as the house lights came up, and the cameras swooped in for crowd reaction shots. St. Paul wasn't about to go out like that though, and the crowd's thunderous applause echoed through the massive building, drawing Patti and her band back out for a genuine, unplanned encore. Joking that the band hadn't prepared for the song, Smith began a newer tune, "Banga," the title track from her most recent effort. Urging the crowd to howl along, Patti freestyled the song's bridge, changing the words to include St. Paul's Jackson and Smith streets in a delightfully off-the-cuff moment. Apparently, this was Station to Station's first encore, unsurprising given the scripted nature of the event, and Smith milked it for all it was worth, dragging out the ending to give one last wave to the fans. In the glow of the moment, we all walked straight out of the doors without so much as a glimpse at the Levis® Nomadic Maker's Yurt.
Personal Bias: I'm not much of an art critic, and will admit to being a bit disdainful of the non-music aspects of Station to Station.
The Crowd: Uber-stylish and young or aging and punk.
Random Notebook Dump: I hope the guy who put the camera in my face for the encore didn't catch me scratching myself.
My Blakean Year It's a Dream Redondo Beach Beneath the Southern Cross Because the Night People Have the Power Encore Banga
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