By John Curley
Since the death in December 2017 of The Smithereens’ songwriter and lead vocalist Pat DiNizio, the role of lead vocalist in the band has been filled on an alternating basis by both the singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms. For the special performance on Friday, April 29th at Sony Hall in midtown Manhattan, they both performed with the band. At the Sony Hall show, Crenshaw, Wilson, lead guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken were joined by Severo Jornacion on bass. Jornacion, who played regularly with the band from 2005 to 2017, still performs with them occasionally when Mike Mesaros , the band’s original bassist who rejoined the band in 2017, is not available.
The proceedings began with a stellar performance of “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” featuring Wilson on lead vocals. Diken’s drumming was explosive right out of the box and Babjak’s playing in the guitar break was quite exceptional. That was followed by a stellar version of “Top Of The Pops” with Crenshaw taking on the role of lead vocalist. Jornacion’s basslines were great, Diken’s drumming crisp and Babjak’s guitar work outstanding.
Following a terrific version of “Sorry” sung by Wilson, Crenshaw introduced “Strangers When We Meet” by stating that he played on the original version 40 years ago on which he was billed as “Jerome Jerome.” An excellent performance of the song followed.
Prior to taking on the lead vocal for “Green Thoughts,” Wilson stated that it meant a great deal to him to be performing with the band in New York City. He spoke of working in a Phoenix record store when he was 21 and got to meet The Smithereens there when they were promoting the Green Thoughts album.
The rip-roaring, punk-sounding version of “Only A Memory” was one of the standout moments of the show. Babjak’s explosive performance on the song was a great deal of fun to watch. And they followed that up with an equally magnificent version of “Now And Then” that had the band firing on all cylinders and featured some impressive windmilling by Babjak.
Babjak introduced “Especially For You” by telling the story that he and DiNizio wrote the song in Florida and recorded it for the Green Thoughts album to, in a way, make up for the fact that the Especially For You album did not have a title track. Crenshaw did a nice job on the song’s lead vocal.
The Sixties-style power pop of “She’s Got A Way” made for a very enjoyable listen as did the New Wave-sounding “Yesterday’s Girl.”
Babjak did the lead vocal on “Life Is So Beautiful.” The performance of the song was outstanding, as Babjak and Diken seemed to be pushing each other to ratchet up the ferocity. It received a big hand from the crowd. Diken sang lead on “I Don’t Want To Lose You.” Babjak introduced it by saying that it was the first song by DiNizio that he heard. And Babjak provided some terrific playing during the guitar break.
Many in the crowd were on their feet for outstanding versions of “Miles From Nowhere” and “Drown In My Own Tears” that both featured Wilson on lead vocals. Wilson and Crenshaw shared the lead vocal on the extended version of “House We Used To Live In.” The crowd was cheering throughout the performance of the song. When the song was complete, Crenshaw and Wilson left the stage to Babjak, Diken and Jornacion, who proceeded to play a positively ferocious cover of The Who’s instrumental “Sparks” from the Tommy album. It was clear that the three of them were really enjoying it. Babjak was windmilling on his Telecaster like a man possessed, and Diken and Jornacion were rocking out full on. It was outstanding. Crenshaw and Wilson then returned to the stage to share the lead vocal on a stellar performance of the set closer “Blood And Roses.”
After a very brief interval, Crenshaw and Wilson emerged onstage without the band to perform “Til I Hear It From You,” a song that they along with Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela wrote for Gin Blossoms in 1995. Valenzuela and Crenshaw wrote the music and Wilson the lyrics. Crenshaw and Wilson actually didn’t meet until the song had been recorded and was already getting radio airplay. They shared the lead vocal on the version they performed at Sony Hall. It was quite good.
Babjak, Diken and Jornacion then joined Crenshaw and Wilson onstage to perform a faithful and rocking cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What” sung by Wilson that the audience really enjoyed. Wilson remained on vocals for the tight performance of “Blues Before And After.” Crenshaw then did a terrific vocal on the fantastic cover of The Beatles’ “Please Please Me.” (Crenshaw had portrayed John Lennon in a touring company of the show Beatlemania in the late 1970s.) To close out the nearly two-hour performance, Crenshaw and Wilson split the lead vocal duties on an extended and ecstatic version of “A Girl Like You” that had the band pulling out all the stops and the crowd roaring with appreciation.
With Jornacion’s basslines creating a solid foundation for the songs, Diken’s snare hits sounding like machine-gun fire and Babjak’s punky guitar leads on his Rickenbacker seeming to channel Pete Townshend circa 1966, they continue to breathe new life into DiNizio’s gorgeous power-pop masterpieces of beauty and sadness, heartbreak and hope. It’s the best possible tribute that they can pay to their late bandmate and friend.
The Smithereens’ upcoming tour dates can be found at https://www.officialsmithereens.com/shows.
The Smithereens’ setlist was as follows:
Behind The Wall Of Sleep (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Top Of The Pops (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
Sorry (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Strangers When We Meet (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
Groovy Tuesday (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Green Thoughts (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Only A Memory (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
Now And Then (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Especially For You (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
If The Sun Doesn’t Shine (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Cut Flowers (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
She’s Got A Way (Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
Yesterday’s Girl (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Life is So Beautiful (Jim Babjak on vocals)
I Don’t Want To Lose You (Dennis Diken on vocals)
Miles From Nowhere (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Drown In My Own Tears (Robin Wilson on vocals)
House We Used To Live In (Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson share vocals)
Sparks (cover of song by The Who)
Blood And Roses (Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson share vocals)
Til I Hear It From You (cover of Gin Blossoms song, Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson share vocals)
No Matter What (cover of Badfinger song, Robin Wilson on vocals)
Blues Before And After (Robin Wilson on vocals)
Please Please Me (cover of The Beatles’ song, Marshall Crenshaw on vocals)
A Girl Like You (Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson share vocals)