The title of this homage to Allen Ginsberg is a little misleading. It’s not just one poet who speaks on this night of artistic collaboration, but several. While Patti Smith and Philip Glass have nominally come together to celebrate the life and work of their friend, this patchwork evening of poems and music is as much a tribute to poetry itself as to this specific Beat poet. Through Smith’s distinctive voice, others are heard.
This loosely stitched together event combines readings of Ginsberg’s poems set to Glass’s arrangements, a heartfelt celebration of the children’s poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, and selections of Glass and Smith’s own work. The curation is uneven, seemingly torn between honouring Ginsberg, pursuing the interests of its two artists and pleasing the Smith and Glass fans packing the Edinburgh Playhouse. From the moment we spy the guitar at the side of the stage, there’s little doubt that Smith is going to appease everyone with a few of her (rapturously greeted) songs.
There’s no doubt that it’s a joy to see these two artists on stage, and neither disappoints. Smith in particular is stunning, displaying a warmth and gentleness that runs somewhat counter to her punk legend status, singing gorgeous acoustic versions of a handful of her hits. The really exquisite moments, however, are those involving the poetry. Smith’s voice is captivating and musical, cradling the words and rocking them to the rhythm of Glass’s delicate accompaniment. There’s a beautifully childlike relish to the performance of the Stevenson poems, evoking the giddy excitement of that early discovery of language, while Smith manages to draw an implicit line from this youthful inspiration, to the work of her friend and teacher Ginsberg, to her own verses. It’s also rather extraordinary to look at a packed auditorium of people all held rapt by a poetry reading.
But just as the curation of material feels patchy, the event itself has a strange and at times problematic atmosphere. It’s neither rock gig nor classical concert, neither poetry reading nor theatrical performance. Despite the Smith fans clearly in attendance, her songs fall a little flat as we all sit politely in our seats, on best International Festival behaviour. The closing rendition of ‘People Have the Power’, meanwhile, feels little short of disingenuous, its revolutionary impetus drained by the corporate neutrality of a festival that has just announced its intention to stay out of the Scottish independence debate. The spirit is right, but the context jars, and despite the soaring highs, the night ends on something of a false note.