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(Patti Smith live, by Kevin Bull)

This week, the first shows in the refurbished/remodelled/remade Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House will be staged as celebrations spread. And thank goodness for the changes.

It’s a room with history in a relatively short lifespan, but also a long list of sound issues that have bedevilled jazz and rock groups, solo singers and Brazilian ensembles. It’s a room which was often a place for a clear mismatch of artists-to-venue, where a desire to stand where giants have stood overcame sensible decisions about the ability to fill the room (with paying customers, with sound, and with charisma) or the desirability of doing so.

Yet it has also been a room where the most unlikely of successes have occurred, in particular electronic groups like Underworld, Hot Chip and Caribou, who made the most formal of venues into a heaving mess of bodies and fun. Though Paul Weller made it work as a rock room too. And, in 2008, Patti Smith elevated it.

Wind Back Wednesday brings forth one of the best shows I’ve seen in the Concert Hall.



Sydney Opera House, October 15, 2008

She is the root connection/She is connecting with he.

WE ALL KNOW that when we attend a concert by a "legend" we are likely to have to carry a portion of the show ourselves. We want our memories affirmed and we carry the excitement of just being in their presence so we create a bubble around the show which invariably makes up for/blinds us to any failings on stage.

Having last seen Patti Smith supporting Bob Dylan about a decade ago, in a show which was solid but free of spark, and being an interested observer rather than a fan over the years, I came to the Opera House expecting another one of those nights. I left two hours later certain that I had seen one of the great figures of contemporary art.

I left inspired by the rhetorical heights of My Blakean Year ("Fortune breathed into my ear/Mouthed a simple ode/One road is paved in gold/One road is just a road") and in particular the ebb and flow rhythm, the conversation between voice and Lenny Kaye’s electric blues guitar lines, and the sheer grandeur of Birdland ("I am helium raven and this movie is mine").

I left transported by the way the swirling psychedelic rock meets Turkish bazaar of an extended exploration of Beneath The Southern Cross became exultant and spiritual, and moved by the tenderness of quite individual interpretations of Neil Young's Helpless and Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit (her excellent band here augmented by her support act, the superb Drones).

But most of all I left blown away by the strength of character, depth, charm and sensuality – charisma is too facile, too diminished a word for this - of Patti Smith. Where many good, and all too many average, musicians “perform”, Smith seems to embody a lifetime immersed in and given over to art. She is in every way compelling.

As much could be told by Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, which was hair raising, roof lifting tumult. It was fire and spit and intensity in her eyes, never more so than as the song climaxed she systematically snapped every string on her guitar. It was theatre but it was not without purpose, or truth.

As a Sydney poet, still buzzing hours later, put it to me, it wasn’t just that she broke all the strings, it was that she did it while saying “This is an arrow, it goes straight out over the Opera House, over Sydney, up to the full moon, up to the stars".

She is benediction.


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