NEW YORK — Patti Smith, making her long awaited return to rock, is basking in a wave of adulation that seems to be embarrassing even her. During the show, after one fan professed her fondness for Smith, the singer could only respond, "I am so well loved lately that I am turning into a Hallmark card."
The sold-out show at Irving Plaza in Manhattan was timed to coincide with the release of her new album, "Gone Again" (Arista), praised as one of the finest of the year.
Originally a New York poet and actress, Smith first became known as a rock musician after her 1975 album debut, "Horses." She went on to record four more albums within the following four years. In the fall of 1979, she dissolved her band to get married and start a family in Michigan.
At the time, Smith also felt her group had accomplished all it could.
"We did what we set out to do," she said recently. "There was a new guard; rock-and-roll wasn't going to die. I felt like it was a discreet time to leave."
Since the late '70s, a string of female performers, including contemporary rockers PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, and Liz Phair, have looked to her as a role model.
At the comeback concert in New York, Smith poured her heart into "Gone Again," an elegiac collection of mostly ballads that have to do with grieving the loss of loved ones. The singer's husband (rock musician Fred "Sonic" Smith), brother, Todd, and numerous close friends have passed away in recent years. Her final number, the gently mournful "Farewell Reel," was dedicated to her late husband.
Despite the theme of loss, the concert was far from a solemn occasion. The singer was clearly delighted to be back. With her onstage, she had a strong support group including her sister Kimberly, one of her sons, and her longtime associate Lenny Kaye ("my brother-in-arms for 25 years"), all of whom were given the opportunity to perform solo numbers. Her band included Tom Verlaine on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty, from her original group, on drums.
Beginning the show with her usual poetry reading, Smith performed a varied set, mixing quiet acoustic renditions of waltzlike tunes from the new release with hard-driving rockers.
She revealed her trademark intensity, from the sneering in her cover of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" to the incantatory wailing of "About a Boy," a song inspired by the late rock musician Kurt Cobain. And she thrilled fans with a slinky take on "Redondo Beach," a rousing rendition of "Dancing Barefoot," and a performance of "Horses" that displayed her voice in all its former punk glory.
*Patti Smith is now touring Europe. For concert dates, visit her Web site: http://www.aristarec.com/psmith /home.html