‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.’
Those are the first words sung by Patti Smith on her debut album Horses in 1975. Horses proved to be a landmark album not just for Smith’s career but for rock ‘n’ roll. Drawing upon influences from punk, jazz, spoken word and Rimbaud, Smith shed new light on the previously male-dominated genre into something raw, poetic, honest and unique. Horses continues to influence generations of musicians and, with the 40th Anniversary of the album culminating at Melbourne Festival, four of Australia’s finest vocalists were put to the daunting task of recreating the album in its entirety.
Walking into the Melbourne Town Hall and seeing the seats stripped away, it became clear that this performance was going to err on the side of ‘rock show’ rather than ‘recital.’ And it did. With an understated stage set-up for the backing band and the towering pipe organ overseeing proceedings, we were all disciples worshipping at the Church of Patti. If you needed any more evidence of Smith’s influence and appeal, you needed only to look around at the diverse crowd (the females certainly outnumbering fellas) with teenagers sharing the bar queue with old rockers.
Our four vocalists were well paired to their songs. Artist-of-the-moment Courtney Barnett, fresh off eight ARIA Award nominations, successfully used her unique delivery on the reggae-tinged ‘Redondo Beach’ but in the soaring ‘Break It Up’ failed to reach the same heights as the original. Cloher, the brains behind the show, delivered a poised ‘Kimberly’ and later played punk rock preacher on ‘Land.’ Gareth Liddiard, the only male represented, got tasked with two of the album’s more atmospheric numbers, infusing his take on ‘Birdland’ with the kind of raw, quiet-loud dynamics he’s known for in The Drones. But best of all was Adalita from Geelong rockers Magic Dirt, whose voice best reflected Smith’s own on rousing opener ‘Gloria’ and the tempo-shifting ‘Free Money.’ The choice to encore with Smith’s ramshackle cover of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ (a bonus track on the album) was perhaps a slight misstep with each singer providing a chorus but getting a bit lost in the mix. Nonetheless, a respectful, no-frills affair was the order of the evening with no banter, no detours and every performer getting a moment to shine.
There’s a famous story about REM front man Michael Stipe, who first bought Horses when he 15 years old. As he sat up all night eating cherries and listening to the record over and over, he knew that music was the only path for him. As Stipe puts it, Patti Smith’s music ‘tore my limbs off and put them back in a different order.’ You can imagine that there are countless stories just like this as Horses continues to inspire listeners all around the world to explore their own ‘sea of possibilities.’