Patti Smith’s Horses“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” sings Adalita as she opens the concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses.

If Adalita fans in the audience, too young to be familiar with Smith’s work, find the back beat and bass line familiar, they soon realise why, as the song morphs into a version of the Van Morrison classic, Gloria (G_L_O_R_I_A…).

This – the first song of Smith’s first album – perfectly summed up what she was all about; beautifully written lines that screamed with the pain and frustration of youth but packaged in deceptively familiar references of classic Americana – plus that extra zest of Smith that made the mix uniquely hers.

Has it really been 40 years since the wild-looking woman out-cooled dudes like the Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, extending the bridge they had started building between rock and punk?

With her skinny-leg jeans and tousled black mop of long hair she could have been a sister to the Ramones, only her words were more carefully crafted, her references more literary and her audience more eclectic.

Born a few generations later she might have been tagged an “Emo” – at the time she became a poet-rocker and, for many teens like me, a counter-culture hero.

As part of the 2015 Melbourne Festival, four of Australia’s coolest 21st-Century eclectic rockers – Courtney Barnett, Adalita (Magic Dirt), Jen Cloher (The Endless Sea) and Gareth Liddiard (The Drones) – teamed up to present Horses in its entirety, backed by a solid four-piece band comprising Dan Lucombe (guitar), Ben Bourk (bass), Jen Sholakis (drums) and Stevie Hesketh on keyboards (and upgrading to the Melbourne Town Hall organ for the finale).  

The event is billed as an Australian exclusive and sold out so quickly a second show was added. However a camera crew was present, so fans who missed out should be able to catch a recording sometime.

The four singers shared the eight tracks between them and were strikingly similar in terms of looks, style, passion and delivery. Dark skinny jeans and long dark hair added to the “Patti” theme.

However each brought their own style to each track: Adalita (who performed Gloria andFree Money) oozes feminine cool; Barnett (Redondo Beach, Break it Up) is the shy master of the monotone who then explodes without warning; Liddiard, armed with guitar, crescendoes to a writhing, spitting snake as a song’s passion builds – perfect for his rendiditon of Birdland then revealing a quieter intensity in Elegie – while Cloher (Kimberly, Land) backs up her striking vocals with an energetic stage presence that saw her racing all around the stage – literally.

It was an exhilarating performance, slick and professional and throbbing with passion and energy that did its creator proud.

My only complaint is that often the words weren’t discernible enough; for some lyrics this is not an issue but for a wordsmith such as Patti Smith, her prose almost outweighs the music and speak so eloquently of the anger, dreams and cynicism felt by generations of young minds questioning life, love, death, and conventions.

It is this connection with a shared human experience, blended with solid rock roots and energised by punk feistiness that has given Horses its longevity and continued relevance.

Just as I was thinking how well this album reflected the youth of the '70s, the full lineup returned to the stage and belted out the last track on the album that I’d forgotten about – Smith’s version of The Who’s My Generation.

Sounded like it was written for them.

Melbourne Festival and Milk! present
Patti Smith’s Horses
Performed by Courtney Barnett, Jen Cloher, Adalita and Gareth Liddiard

Venue: Melbourne Town Hall
Dates: 18 October 2015
Tickets: $29 – $59

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