By John Curley
The surviving members of the New Jersey-based band The Smithereens recently announced that the band would continue following the December 2017 death of their frontman and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio. Instead of installing a permanent frontman, the band decided to instead use different lead vocalists—Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms and the singer-songwriters Marshall Crenshaw and Ted Leo—depending upon the availability of each of the singers. For the band’s show on Friday, June 1st at Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, NJ, the role of lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist was filled quite capably by Crenshaw. And Crenshaw, along with Carteret, NJ natives and founding members of The Smithereens Jim Babjak (lead guitar and backing vocals), Mike Mesaros (bass and backing vocals), and Dennis Diken (drums), made up quite a formidable quartet. (Mesaros, who left The Smithereens in 2006, began performing with the band again in 2016.)
The Outpost in the Burbs shows are held in Montclair’s First Congregational Church, quite a unique venue for a rock-and-roll show. The fantastic acoustics in the church made the howl and whine of Babjak’s Rickenbacker sound like a dive bomber, gave Diken’s snare hits the resonance of machine-gun fire, and had Mesaros’ bass lines seeming like an 18-wheeler rumbling down the highway. The band has always had a great power-pop rock sound, but the church’s acoustics took that up a notch. It was the perfect venue for a powerhouse band like The Smithereens.
The show was opened by another New Jersey-based band, The Grip Weeds. The band is comprised of brothers Kurt Reil (vocals and drums) and Rick Reil (vocals and guitar) as well as Kristen Pinell (guitar and vocals) and Dave DeSantis (bass). Their sound straddles power pop and psychedelic rock. For the Outpost in the Burbs show, the Reil brothers played acoustic guitars (with Kurt Reil also on percussion) in deference to the electric power of The Smithereens. The Grip Weeds have a nice sound, and the audience seemed to really enjoy their 30-minute set.
Following a break of about 30 minutes, The Smithereens and Crenshaw took the stage to loud cheers from the crowd. And the band lived up to their stellar live reputation straight away with an extended version of the opening song “Only A Memory.” The song is a great fit for Crenshaw’s voice. Babjak was ripping it up on his Rickenbacker, playing some ferocious slash-and-burn guitar lines. Diken and Mesaros were providing a rock-solid foundation. And the band never really let up from that point. While some of the songs performed were quieter and mellower than others, the energy level from both the band and audience never dissipated. It was genuinely thrilling to witness a veteran band like The Smithereens dominate a stage the way they did at this show.
Following that fantastic opening, The Smithereens then tore right into an incendiary version of “Top Of The Pops.” The band was firing on all cylinders, and it was power-pop perfection. Next up was “Sorry,” which featured a nice vocal turn by Crenshaw. And the slower song “Even If I Never Get Back Home” was supported by Mesaros’ excellent bass work.
The next two songs, the 1960’s-sounding “One Look At You” and “Can’t Go Home Anymore,” which Diken introduced by saying that it hadn’t been performed live in 24 years, were both plagued by brief power outages onstage and both had to be restarted from the beginning once the power issue was sorted out. While such an issue might have thrown a lesser band and sent them into a panic, The Smithereens just shrugged and waited for the issue to be fixed as Diken played brief drum solos both times to fill the gap as the crowd cheered him on.
The first cover song of the night was up next, The Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me.” Diken introduced the song by telling the crowd that it had been recorded for the soundtrack of the 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damm film Timecop. The band performed a fantastic version of it with a great vocal by Crenshaw that received a big hand from the crowd.
Few rock songwriters were as skilled at writing about love and heartbreak as Pat DiNizio was. And the four songs that followed showcased DiNizio’s magic songwriting touch. “Drown In My Own Tears” featured terrific work by Babjak on guitar. The slower song “Spellbound” was held together by Mesaros and Diken as Babjak played great guitar fills and Crenshaw sang DiNizio’s words to the delight of the crowd. “Especially For You” spotlighted Babjak’s guitar and Crenshaw’s vocals. It received quite a reaction from the crowd. And the nuanced “In A Lonely Place” was an outstanding band effort that drew big cheers from the audience.
Crenshaw’s vocals were the highlight of the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well…All Right.” And it made perfect sense for The Smithereens to cover that song with Crenshaw in their lead-vocalist role since Crenshaw had portrayed Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba.
The performances of “Cut Flowers,” “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid,” and “Strangers When We Meet” all received big reactions from the crowd. The Smithereens then ratcheted up the energy level even more as the show went into the home stretch. Diken dedicated “House We Used To Live In” to DiNizio’s father, saying that he never seemed to mind the band’s loud late-night rehearsals in the basement of his house in the early 1980s despite having to get up early for work. The band really seemed to enjoy playing the song and Babjak and Mesaros sang the backing vocals into the same mic, Beatles style, for a portion of the song. The band then segued into an outstanding and searing cover of The Who’s instrumental “Sparks” from the Tommy album, which The Smithereens had covered in full as an album of their own. This version of “Sparks” had Live At Leeds written all over it as Bajak, Mesaros, and Diken seemed to be channeling Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon, respectively. It was a real show stopper and received a thunderous and sustained standing ovation from the crowd when it was over.
There was no let up when, after the cheers for “Sparks” died down, the band tore into the fantastic rocker “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” Quite arguably DiNizio’s finest composition, this version included a great vocal by Crenshaw and an epic guitar break courtesy of Babjak. When Crenshaw sang the line “She stood just like Bill Wyman,” Mesaros, who was standing to Crenshaw’s left, held the neck of his bass straight up as he played, like the Stones’ legend did. It was a nice touch.
The terrific “Time And Time Again” was highlighted by Babjak’s terrific guitar work. Mesaros’ bass served as the underpinning for the extended version of “Blood And Roses.,” which included an outstanding guitar break by Babjak. The main set came to a close with the band providing fantastic backing for Crenshaw’s vocal delivery of the power-pop classic “A Girl Like You” that received another lengthy standing ovation from the ecstatic audience.
Following a very brief break, the band returned to the stage to satisfy the crowd’s yelled demands for more music. First up was the short and sweet cover of The Beatles’ rock-and-roller “When I Get Home,” which was delivered with a fine vocal by Crenshaw (who had played John Lennon in the musical Beatlemania in 1979 and 1980). And the show ended with the rocker “Now And Then,” a terrific band effort that had Babjak absolutely killing it during the guitar break. It was a fantastic end to the show that sent many in the crowd into the night sporting big grins and talking excitedly about the rip-roaring concert that they had just witnessed.
The Smithereens were on stage for 110 minutes and played a 21-song main set with a two-song encore.
The fans of The Smithereens seem universally pleased that the band has decided to carry on following DiNizio’s death. It almost defies logic that a veteran band that has existed since 1980 could put on such a blistering show. But their show in Montclair proved, once again, that The Smithereens still have a lot of gas left in their tank. They are still very much a must-see in concert.
The Smithereens have announced additional shows with Marshall Crenshaw on lead vocals. They are:
Saturday, July 14th at Iridium in New York City (two shows)
Thursday, July 26th at the Arcadia Theatre in St. Charles, IL
Saturday, July 28th at the Southern Theatre in Columbus, OH
Friday, August 24th at the Suffolk Theatre in Riverhead, Long Island, NY
Saturday, August 25th at TCAN/The Center For The Arts in Natick, MA
Additional information and ticket-purchase links for the shows above can be found at https://officialsmithereens.com/shows/.
Jim Babjak will be the featured artist for 10 Albums That Changed My Life in Goldmine’s August 2018 issue. The issue will be available at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, and select record stores in the United States in mid-July.
The Smithereens’ setlist was as follows:
Only A Memory
Top Of The Pops
Even If I Never Get Back Home
One Look At You
Can’t Go Home Anymore
Time Won’t Let Me (The Outsiders cover)
Drown In My Own Tears
Especially For You
In A Lonely Place
Well…All Right (Buddy Holly cover)
Crazy Mixed-Up Kid
Strangers When We Meet
House We Used To Live In
Sparks (The Who cover)
Behind The Wall Of Sleep
Time And Time Again
Blood And Roses
A Girl Like You
When I Get Home (The Beatles cover)
Now And Then