Patti Smith’s Punk-Spirituality at Stern Grove Festival

Patti Smith waves to her flowery fans with a smile PHOTO COURTESY OF KATIE THURMAN

Hidden in the Outer Sunset, every Sunday from June to August you can find music, art, community, and the smell of fresh air in a grove of eucalyptus trees. This summer, the Stern Grove Festival celebrated its 86th season of free concerts in San Francisco. The festival has garnered a reputation of being one of the oldest and largest outdoor festivals in the world. It featured ten weeks of free music, from artists like The Flaming Lips, Angelique Kidjo, and Neil Frances. The Foghorn attended the Aug. 13 Patti Smith and Bob Mould concert to immerse into this quintessential San Franciscian festival.

To enter the concert grounds, one must hike nearly 14 stories below street level. The concert-goers, including elderly folks and babies, nestled in for the warm, free Sunday of music. While some reserved tables by the stage, most of the crowd sat on the hill above, which headliner Patti Smith commented on later in the show. “It’s like a million flowers moving through the trees,” Smith said. 

A flock of concert -goers perch themselves upon the hill for a day of sunshine, good music, and quality time with loved ones. PHOTO COURTESY OF KATIE THURMAN

Patti Smith is a singer, poet, revolutionary, and one of the most acclaimed musicians from the New York City punk movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Her 1975 album “Horses” went platinum, and her memoir “Just Kids” won the National Book Award in 2010. 

After 50 years of touring, Smith has a substantive Bay Area fanbase. Many concert-goers have followed her for most of her career. 

In the crowd, The Foghorn met Shuanna Hall, a musician celebrating her 60th birthday with a large picnic at the festival. Hall flaunted Patti Smith merchandise, ready for the show. “I’ve seen [Smith] eight or nine times,” Hall said. “She keeps getting better.”

Smith has also garnered many new listeners. Emma Comer, a senior performing arts and social justice major at USF, came to the Stern Grove Festival for Patti Smith. “I fell in love with Patti Smith with her writing. I finally got into her music after I read all her books. When I saw that she was coming live, I knew that I had to go.”

In the past, pop and electronic musicians such as Thundercat, Toro y Moi, and Mitski have performed. “We try every single week to have a different style of music,” said Bob Fielder, executive director of the festival. “We’ll certainly have one or two shows in 2024 aimed at a younger demographic.”

While the Stern Grove Festival is a new tradition for many on the Hilltop, for other San Franciscians it has always been an integral part of their lives. 

Hall has attended this festival since she was a child. “I had Girl Scout camp in this park right here,” she said. “The first show I ever saw at the festival was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.” While Hall has noticed some changes to the festival throughout her lifetime, mainly increased ticket demand, she said that the spirit has always remained. 

For Comer, the spirit of the festival was “very San Francisco. I loved how it started off super hot, and then you could see the fog seeping in through the trees, and the entire event changed because of it. It has a very special, unique energy to it.” 

Following a set from DJ Allyson Baker and punk-rock icon Bob Mould, Smith took to the stage, and celebrated the iconic San Francisco bookstore City Light’s 70th anniversary by reading a passage from Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl.” 

“We’re not our skin of rind,” she read. “We’re beautiful sunflowers inside.” 

Afterwards, Smith performed her signature songs, including a perversion of “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” a punk-rock song about desire for a woman named Gloria. The song resounded in the crowd. 

An estimated 90,000 people attended the festival this year, Fielder said. “We’re going to break all of our attendance records.”

“I truly believe this is one of the finest places to see a live concert in the world,” he said. “To me, it should be mentioned in the same breath as Red Rocks or the Gorge. When you combine nature, like you have here, with amazing artists — and all for free — it’s a pretty special combination.”

Smith noted this combination in her set. She sang of the trees within her revolutionary punk ballads. “Thank you Jesus,” she said at the conclusion of her set. “Thank you trees. Thank you Samuel Beckett.” Smith then led the audience in rhythmic chanting. “I can’t go on. I go on. I can’t go on. I go on.” 

“Drink your water! Be happy! You’re alive,” Smith implored as she left the stage. An older concert-goer could be heard exclaiming in the crowd. “Wow,” he said. “That felt like 1975.”

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