Camden felt oddly quiet last Friday evening. Nestled into my seat I could hear my neighbour softly singing along to Under Pressure and I admonished myself for stifling that same urge. I was in a surprisingly comfy seat behind mixing desks (oddly with images of Napoleon Dynamite on their screens) with a soft blue light washing down the columns of the Roundhouse. I’d not been interested in drinking that night; the stage required my full attention for the poetry mother, Patti Smith.
It was Burns night, which is maybe why I expected the streets to be filled with boisterous celebrants, and while I’m not Scottish it felt appropriate to be attending an evening of words and music. As part of the Roundhouse ‘In the Round’ series, a stage had been built towards the middle of the famous space surrounded by chairs and seats on scaffolding. The arrangement made me recall fringe events I was taken to as a child at the Grahamstown Festival. This was no ordinary gig though.
Having been lucky enough to see Smith at the All Points East Festival over the summer, it was immediately obvious the atmosphere on this occasion was the exact opposite; a much smaller gathering, seated and fully absorbed. At one point Smith even said next time she came back she’d “get rid of the fucking chairs”, but the intimate atmosphere was appreciated by all in the end. It perfectly suited Smith’s readings as the audience were entranced by her reciting William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Andrei Tarkovsky as well as prose from her book ‘Just Kids’.
Funnily enough, I recalled her opening her summer festival gig with a Ginsberg poem since that day was his birthday. This time it was actually Woolf’s birthday which gave Smith’s reading from ‘The Waves’ a wonderfully warm and extra emotional layer. Noting that it was Burns night, Smith mentioned she was given a book of Rabbie Burns’ works which she wanted to read from in homage but: “It was all in Scottish”. Through audience chortles she said she wore a new pair of shiny gold boots instead.
In between her passionate readings, Smith sang some of her more well-known songs, much to the delight of us all. Many sang along as she performed Midnight Oils ‘Beds are Burning’ along with ‘Dancing Barefoot’, ‘Because the Night’ and my inevitable tears flowed all the way through singing along to ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’.
Another particularly special moment came when she introduced both of her children, Jackson and Jesse, who were part of the band. Jackson, on the guitar, at one point started teasing his mother by playing something that sounded like the Mr Magoo theme as Smith seemed a little confused as to what was next on the setlist. The look that Smith shot him was that of every mother who was being teased by their offspring, the same look she would have given him when he was a child I’m sure. While it’s very easy to hold those you admire on a pedestal, seeing such a conventional, human moment between family felt so normal and wonderful, and a privileged insight to bear witness to such a relatable moment.
Smith at one point congratulated a couple who she heard had just got married, I assume that day, and the two grooms, shyly identifying themselves, sat quite close to the front of the stage. As she wished them a happy life together, the face of one of the grooms swelled red and he began to sob. The memory of this unique moment is making me well up a little, as well as smile when I remember the whole room applauding their congratulations along with Smith. It seemed it was an embodiment of pure joy that we were all able to share.
The personal feeling around the whole gig was enhanced further by Smith’s extremely relaxed demeanour. Speaking with the audience as if we were all guests in her living room, waving at different sides of the stage warmly throughout and beginning a personal story with the segue: “Oh, did I tell you about the glasses?” The adoration from the audience was palpable, and it felt like Smith was returning that affection with effortless sparkle and genuine warmth.
The applause following her encore continued after the house lights rose and music started playing. Feeling equally fulfilled and exhausted I was sad the evening had drawn to a close, but so grateful to have been there for such a one of a kind event. I was leaving with ticket evidence it happened, a T-shirt brandishing one of my favourite lyrics of hers: “People have the Power”, evidence that there was still plenty of love left in this tumultuous world, encouraged to do better with my own works and, above all, some incredibly precious and personal memories I will cherish for as long as I can hold onto them.