It was meant to be a lazy evening of thoughtful folk music in a London park.
That was until Patti Smith and her band delivered 90 electric minutes of taut punk rock, incisive anger and guitar-driven beat poetry.
The Serpentine Sessions consist of evenings of music in a corner of London’s Hyde Park. They are to so-called boutique festivals such as the Big Chill what the big weekend events like Hard Rock Calling are to festivals such as Glastonbury, a chance for a little festival excitement in the heart of the city.
Musically, the Serpentine Sessions favor folk singers and those who prefer their songs mellower, perhaps a little more thoughtful.
Denmark’s Efterklang made some lovely sounds, its bright textures owing much to minimalist composer Steve Reich. The influence was worn well, unlike the lead singer’s outfit: socks; deck-shoes; striped shirt tucked into light shorts.
Another fashion crisis failed to diminish Fionn Regan, who impressed with a lusty mix of folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll. At times sounding like an invigorated Irish Johnny Cash, he showed it is possible to write deliciously witty lyrics and sport a haircut like an extraordinary pudding bowl.
When Grizzly Bear release a record, it typically results in a mass critical swoon. Onstage the Brooklyn-based four-piece disappointed. Gone was the mix of Beach Boys pop, Americana and progressive rock. Dulled by amplification and bedraggled in reverb, the delicious chamber-pop details were lost. The songs plodded, their repeating formulas becoming uncomfortably obvious.
New York Punk
Smith drew a large and devoted crowd for her set. She played with four musicians, two of whom have been in her band since the mid 1970s: lead guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Smith, a leading light in the punk scene in New York centered around the CBGB’s venue, was also a friend of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe -- a relationship she describes in her book “Just Kids.”
Classics like “Space Monkey” and “Because The Night,” a song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen, were delivered with fury and sent the crowd into ecstasy.
A broody cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and a searing, screaming rendition of “Horses,” Smith’s visceral slab of jittery noise-encased poetry, completed a superb session.
The Sessions ended with a much anticipated set from London folk wunderkind Laura Marling. Her voice is distinctive and her songwriting is mature beyond her 20 years. Meanwhile, Patti Smith and her band will be touring Europe throughout the summer. Both acts are very highly recommended.
Ratings: Patti Smith ****. Serpentine Sessions **. Laura Marling: *** 1/2.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)