By John Curley
A surreal sight greeted those that were on New York City’s Broadway on Saturday night, July 13th. A power outage had knocked out electricity to large swaths of Manhattan and, in a strange quirk, one side of Broadway had power and the other did not. Many Broadway shows had to be cancelled as did Jennifer Lopez’s show at Madison Square Garden. But The Iridium Club on Broadway, where The Smithereens were due to play two shows that night at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., did have power, so both shows were able to proceed. While the power outage kept some fans from being able to get to the venue as most subway lines were knocked out during the blackout, it did not dim the enthusiasm of the fans at the 10 p.m. show, which I attended.
At The Iridium, The Smithereens (Jim Babjak on lead guitar and backing vocals, Mike Mesaros on bass and backing vocals and Dennis Diken on drums and backing vocals) were joined by singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms have alternated in the lead-vocalist role for the band since the December 2017 death of the band’s lead singer and songwriter Pat DiNizio.
The show had a loose and fun feel that the power blackout in the city only added to. Crenshaw, Mesaros and Diken jokingly began their set and then quickly stopped, feigning annoyance that Babjak was still at the bar getting drinks. When Babjak got to the stage and completed the quartet, they began their show with a rousing version of “Miles From Nowhere.” Babjak was terrific, playing some ferocious slash-and-burn guitar leads, while Crenshaw supplied a great lead vocal and the rhythm section of Diken and Mesaros provided a rocking foundation. It set the tone for the rest of the performance and exemplified that they rock just as hard in their sixties as they did in their twenties.
In addition to their catalog of fantastic original songs, The Smithereens are also quite adept at playing covers. Prior to the second song of the set, Crenshaw told the crowd that they had worked on a number during that night’s soundcheck and decided to put it into the set. The song was “Something” by The Beatles, one of George Harrison’s finest compositions. The version that followed was perfect. Crenshaw’s vocal was spot on, Babjak’s guitar work was stellar, Diken’s backing vocal was just right and Mesaros was solid on bass.
Babjak, Diken and Mesaros went to high school together in Carteret, New Jersey, and the three of them have known Crenshaw since the mid-1980s, so this version of The Smithereens has fantastic chemistry and there were some inside jokes and stories from the 1980s being told between songs. Mesaros left the band for about a decade, replaced by bassist Severo Jornacion during that period, before returning in 2016, and he appears to be having a blast onstage, talking to and joking with the crowd between songs. When performing, the closeness of the band is evident. They clearly enjoy each other’s company and are like a well-oiled machine, still a must-see live band.
During the show, the band honored Paulie the roadie, who has been with them for 39 years. They presented him with an enlarged and framed photo of himself that a longtime fan of the band had taken several years ago. It was a nice moment.
The remainder of the show was chock full of highlights. Babjak’s guitar break during “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” was positively incendiary. Their cover of The Kinks’ “Tired Of Waiting For You” was absolute perfection, power-pop heaven. Crenshaw’s smooth vocal on “Strangers When We Meet” was just one of many examples as to why he was the perfect choice to fill the band’s lead vocalist role. Diken must have been channeling Keith Moon during “Only a Memory” as his machine-gun-like drumming drove the song to new heights. And Diken and Babjak seemed to be trying to outdo each other on the fantastic “Now And Then,” as Diken was pounding his kit with great ferocity and Babjak was doing Pete Townshend-like windmills on his guitar. They let the crowd have a bit of a breather with the slower-paced “Especially For You” that had Crenshaw shining on vocals.
Since shows by The Smithereens are an all-hands-on-deck, no-passengers experience, it was not surprising to see Babjak take the lead vocal on a really nice and heartfelt take on “Life Is So Beautiful.” The crowd gave him a nice hand at the end. That was followed with the terrific power pop of “I Don’t Want To Lose You” that featured Diken on the lead vocal. He provided some terrific drumming on the song as well.
Crenshaw spoke to the crowd a bit about his days as an understudy in the late 1970s show Beatlemania, which had played at the Winter Garden Theatre, not that far down Broadway from The Iridium. He then did a powerful lead vocal on a cover of The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That,” which received tight backing from the band.
Babjak and Mesaros had a funny back-and-forth exchange about the days when they rehearsed in the Babjak’s family garage in which Babjak’s father had meat hanging. The onstage conversation served as a lead-in to the high-energy performance of “House We Used To Live In.” It was a total band effort with a nice vocal by Crenshaw and backing vocals by Babjak and Diken. Toward the end of the song, Babjak and Mesaros both sang the backing vocal at Babjak’s microphone, Beatles style. This went right into an absolutely incendiary cover of The Who’s “Sparks” on which the band sounded a great deal like The Who on their Live At Leeds album. Babjak, Diken and Mesaros all delivered rock-solid performances on the song. And it got quite a hand from the crowd at the end.
The band will be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame on October 27th during a ceremony at the Asbury Park Convention Hall. Tickets for that and upcoming live performances by the band can be found at https://www.officialsmithereens.com/shows.
There will be a feature on the band in the October 2019 issue of Goldmine, which will be available at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and select record stores in the USA on or around September 8th.