Last month, New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, announced NY PopsUp, a series of over 300 performances spread across the state and five boroughs over 100 days. Featuring artists like Amy Schumer, Nico Muhly, Q-Tip, Rhiannon Giddens, and Devonté Hynes, the series is intended to revitalize New York’s arts and entertainment industries and create a path back from shutdown. The events will occur at permanent locations—e.g., museums, parks, and subway stations—and will be free of charge. A majority will not be announced in advance as a safety precaution against big crowds. With the series only recently kicking off, Governor Cuomo announced last week that arts and entertainment venues will be able to open at 33% capacity starting April 3.
On Tuesday afternoon, Patti Smith performed a private concert at the Brooklyn Museum as a thank you to the institution’s employees. The date, March 9, carries heavy significance for Smith: it marks the anniversary of the death of her friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the day she met her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and the last show she played before the COVID-19 shutdown. The career-spanning set took place at the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court, a grand 10,000 square foot space that typically seats 880; Tuesday, there were around 60 people in attendance.
The performance began with a reading of a memorial poem written for Mapplethorpe before Smith and Lenny Kaye, who alternated between guitar and piano throughout the set, launched into 1996’s “Wings.” Smith then read from Just Kids, her 2010 memoir about her relationship with Mapplethorpe. With an audience seated six feet apart around the perimeter of the space, the performance was remarkably still and quiet. The rare interruption—a cell phone going off during a cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a journalist tapping a pen to the melody of “Dancing Barefoot”—were refreshing bursts of spontaneity, small reminders of the semi-unpleasantries that accompany experiencing live music alongside other humans. If NY PopsUp is meant to initiate the baby steps needed to inch our way back to a normal and robust music scene, it seemed like a productive rehearsal for both audience and performer. For her part, Smith engaged in her own “authentic, flawed moment” when she went on a delightful extended digression about her love for a Saturday Night Live skit in which Kristin Wiig lampoons actress Ann-Margret. “Whenever I feel low, I go and watch that,” she explained, to laughter.
The overwhelming mood of the performance was one of nostalgia and love for Mapplethorpe and her late husband Fred, with Smith sharing her memories of both artists in between songs. She covered Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang on to a Dream?,” which she referred to as her and Mapplethorpe’s song, and recalled the first time she met Fred Smith, at the Detroit hot dog joint Lafayette Coney Island while touring Horses. At the end of the set, Smith read a passage from Just Kids about walking through the Village with Mapplethorpe and hearing “Because the Night,” her collaboration with Bruce Springtseen off 1978’s Easter, “blasting from one storefront to another.” After the song wound down, Smith offered some parting words to the small audience: “God bless life, I hope to see you all soon.”