>From the January 25, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone, page 74:
Performance: Patti Smith/Bob Dylan, The Beacon Theater, New York, Dec. 11, 1995
by Jim DeRogatis
The bill was one of those perfect pairings that should have happened long ago: icons from different eras, both representing the flowering of the Beat poetic tradition in rock & roll and both among the most imaginative lyricists the music has produced. The pairing of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan at New York's Beacon Theater drew every English major turned rock critic within a hundred-mile radius. But the 10-date East Coast tour was interesting for another reason as well. Both artists are aware of the deadly effects of nostalgia on rock, and both are struggling to remain as vital in the '90's as they were when they emerged on their respective scenes.
Warmed up by a summer of petry readings and impromptu performances, a strong and self-assured Smith stormed the stage in the city where she helped crystallize the punk movement two decades ago. Standing alone and shrouded beneath the hood of her sweat shirt, she opened with a fiery reading of "Piss Factory", the early-'70's poem in which she vowed never to return to the assembly line. Then she went back to work, joined by guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daughtery, veterans of the original Patti Smith Group, and bassist Tony Shanahan. (Another punk forefather, Television founder Tom Verlaine, came on board midway through the set, but his ringing guitar lines were largely superfluous decoration.)
Like Dylan, Smith has never had what anyone would call a good voice, but her singing was expressive, emotional and beautiful nonetheless. The band played with power and sympathy, and Kaye's strangled solos were a reminder that a guitar can be clean and undistorted and still rock, something that's often forgotten in the post-grunge alternative scene. But the group did little to breathe new life into the old songs, delivering by-the-book versions of "Rock n Roll Nigger" and the 1978 hit "Because the Night", the song she wrote with "that fella from New Jersey" Bruce Springsteen. The elegant "Dancing Barefoot" turned hokey as the group gave it a slowed-down reggae lilt, and Smith transformed the climactic chant of "Oh, God I fell for you" into "Oh, God, I'm back again." The rest of the set consisted of bar-band-quality covers of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" and "Not Fade Away", and three leaden and melancholy new songs, including "About a Boy", her tribute to Kurt Cobain. Plodding and melodramatic where a tune with the passion and propulsive tempo of "Rock n Roll Nigger" would have been more appropriate, the song also failed lyrically, with the chorus "he was just a little boy" standing as neither a particularly poetic nor fitting epitaph.
Dylan was more successful at looking back without being nostalgic, making songs that were 20 or 30 years old sound as fresh as if they were written during the soundcheck. After a lengthy period of his sets being crapshoots--he was redefining himself to the degree that you never knew who you would wind up seeing--Dylan has in the past two years reached a point where he is reinterpreting his voluminous catalog but is still sounding like the "real" Dylan. He is clearly inspired by his current partners: Drummer Winston Watson, pedal steel player Bucky Baxter, bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist John Jackson have jelled into one of the best bands of which Dylan has ever been a part. The group doesn't just back the singer, it carries on musicial conversations with him, and he steps back to become part of the ensemble during joyous and fluid instrumental workouts.
Every song of the Beacon set held rewards and revelations. "All Along the Watchtower" and "Jokerman" were revamped as snarling rockers that could have held their own against anything from Seattle. Performed during a midset "unplugged" interlude with acoustic guitars, stand-up bass and mandolin, "Masters of War" was full of quiet rage, "Dark Eyes", done as a riveting duet with Smith, underscored that both artists share the goal of using live performance as a means of communication with the divine ("A million faces at my feet, but all I see is dark eyes"). Dylan and his group took three well-deserved encores, including "Alabama Getaway", performed as a tribute to Jerry Garcia and a nod to the many Deadheads in the crowd. Dylan's band certainly has more power now than the Dead had in the past few years, and it's possible that the artist who fills the cultural void left by their disbanding may well be the one who inspired them in the first place.