Marshall Crenshaw has a big pair of shoes to fill this week in Montclair — sneakers, actually.
Pat DiNizio’s sneakers.
Friday night at Outpost in the Burbs, the singer and guitarist will join Smithereens members Jim Babjak (guitar), Dennis Diken (drums) and Mike Mesaros (bass) for a full show, for the first time. The Grip Weeds, another Garden State mainstay, open the 8 p.m. show; visit outpostintheburbs.org.
“It’s certainly not just another day at the office. I realize it’s a pretty significant thing,” Crenshaw says of trying to fill the void left by Smithereens frontman DiNizio’s death, in December. “If I think too deeply about it, there’s a little bit of painfulness. I really just try to tune out everything and just play the music.”
It will be Smithereens music that the New York resident and the band will play. In a phone interview Tuesday, Crenshaw said they will not play any of his material. “Entirely a Smithereens show. I’m just there to be the surrogate; I’m just like the mouthpiece, so to speak. I’m there to do justice to the songs. The energy that the band has is exciting to be around.”
Like The Smithereens, Crenshaw broke through in the 1980s, with the Michigan native doing so with the song “Someday, Someway” in 1982, and DiNizio and Co. with their debut album (Especially for You) four years later. Prior to that, Crenshaw began making a name for himself playing John Lennon in a touring version of the Broadway musical, “Beatlemania.”
Crenshaw recalled seeing The Smithereens for the first time on “The Uncle Floyd Show,” the New Jersey institution that was on television from the ’70s to the ’90s. Later, he heard the band playing The Who’s “The Seeker” during a soundcheck at The Bottom Line in New York.
“I thought, ‘Wow! They must have gone to the crossroads.’ They just became a really great rock band and remain so to this day,” he says. “(I thought), ‘They found themselves, didn’t they?’ ”
Crenshaw crossed paths a final time with DiNizo at his 60th birthday celebration in his hometown of Scotch Plains. That was in October 2015.
“It was a cool, old school, neighborhood-hall type of thing,” says Crenshaw, who recalled DiNizio explaining his local roots and history. “It was an emotionally heightened thing at this event. It was the last time I saw him.”
Friday won’t mark the first time Crenshaw will be onstage with Babjak, Diken and Mesaros. As one of many guest vocalists, he spent time at center stage for the band’s marathon tribute to DiNizio in January at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. Crenshaw sang and played on “Even If I Never Get Back Home,” “Strangers When We Meet” and Buddy Holly’s “Well … All Right.” (see a YouTube video of “Well … All Right,” embedded below)
Crenshaw’s association with The Smithereens goes back to the Reagan Era, when he appeared on their first album in 1986 under the name Jerome Jerome. (It was a name that his brother, Robert, hung on him.) Crenshaw said he played piano and Hammond B3 organ on “Strangers When We Meet,” and Diken said he also played six-string bass on the B-side, “White Castle Blues.”
“Marshall is a joy to work with. He’s a total pro (and) great musician. He just reeks music,” says Diken, who also will be out this year doing gigs with Dave Davies (of The Kinks) and Ronnie Spector.
“(Crenshaw is), I think, one of the best vocalists of our time. Our sensibilities are really in line; always have been. We’ve known Marshall a really long time, and he’s really part of our extended family.”
The remaining Smithereens did the tribute show and then appeared with Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms at a show in Illinois, in April. There were other tributes to DiNizio at the Court Tavern New Brunswick and Crossroads in Garwood, as well.
Still, it’s an adjustment for Diken to look forward from his drum kit and not see his longtime bandmate front and center.
“It’s strange. It’s weird, it’s odd — all the things you might imagine,” the Carteret native says. “While it is odd and will never be the same without Pat … it’s the same mindset when I play with anybody: I’m here to do a job. … If you get caught up in the emotion, then you’re not really doing your job. I guess it’s a form of detachment, but it’s what I need to do to approach any of these gigs now and, I guess, most importantly, a Smithereens gig.”
With Crenshaw, Babjak, Diken and Mesaros being the pros they are, there will not be days of practice before the Outpost show.
“It’s going to be one-day rehearsal. We’re not sure how long it will take, but it will be just one rehearsal,” Diken says. “That’s the way we’re going to approach it, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Crenshaw said he and the band will be doing more shows in July and August; details are expected to be announced soon. In addition to Diken touring with Davies and Spector, Babjak stays busy with his Buzzed Meg side project. And The Smithereens on May 25 released a 22-song CD, COVERS. Previously available only digitally on iTunes, it features song made famous by The Beatles, The Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, Frank and Nancy Sinatra and others.
For more information and updates on The Smithereens’ activities, visit officialsmithereens.com.
Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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