If Patti Smith had only performed “Gloria” in front of Friday’s sold-out Orpheum crowd — if she’d taken the stage just before and left immediately after — it would have been enough. Closing out her main set, her amalgam of blasphemous liturgy, lustful garage rock and “Howl” was fierce and jaw-dropping; her band roared and the crowd screamed the title along with her. When Smith circled back inevitably to her starting point once more, the effect was like a thunderclap rolling in slow motion, a moment of sheer power ballooning until it attained physical impact.
It’s a testament to the explosiveness of “Gloria” that 44 years after it opened Smith’s debut, and with countless performances behind her, the 72-year-old and her band (including two lifers, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, both there from the start) easily presented it as vital rock ’n’ roll, rather than merely an echo of a moment long passed. If nothing else in her performance matched that one song — what could? — she nevertheless refused to let up or simply go through the motions. Beaming throughout, Smith was, more than anything, electrifyingly present.
That’s always been Smith’s strength, rippling through her lyrics and her singing. Being blessed/cursed from the start with an unpretty voice deployed for effect means that it’s largely been spared the ravages of time that came for so many of her contemporaries, and she skillfully set it loose on song after song. “My Blakean Year” sounded like a measured warning from an unheeded, itinerant prophet, while “Because the Night” and the chilling, intense “[Expletive] in a River” both found her caught up in something she couldn’t escape, albeit to two vastly different ends.
Immediately after the latter, Smith and bassist Tony Shanahan each wandered separately off stage, at which point she acknowledged the band’s confusion over what was supposed to come next. A good-natured looseness informed the concert; she blew her entrance in the clear-eyed and moody “Dancing Barefoot,” shrugged and waited for the music to come around again, and the high drama of “Break It Up” was followed by an admission that she screwed up some of the words because she forgot they were performing the song.
But whether it was her own material or covers like “Beds Are Burning” (with an added spoken-word intro) or a two-acoustic version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” that she sang with lyric sheet in hand, each song tended to grow weight, force, and teeth as it progressed. So it was only fitting that she closed with the sharp attack of “People Have The Power.” “In our troubled world, life is still beautiful,” she said by way of introduction, and her rousing anthem sent the audience home reenergized and with a mission.
At Orpheum Theatre, Friday