In this year of pandemic, we are thankful, of course, for any opportunity to hear live music. But we also have, I think, become resigned to the idea that “event” concerts — shows that seem unusually notable because of what is being played or the combination of musicians involved — will just have to wait for however many months it will take for things to get back to normal.
But the free Aug. 26 concert by Bobby Bandiera and Jim Babjak at the bandshell of G. Thomas DiDomenico Park in Bayonne — with enthusiastic fans spread out at safe distances from each other on a lawn, and Port Newark (visible across the Newark Bay) providing some rather unique concert scenery — felt like one of those unique events of years past. These two unassuming heroes of the New Jersey rock scene have never performed together in this way, before, and there are currently no plans for them to do so again (though I very much hope that they do).
Bandiera, of course, is a giant of the Shore music scene, a longtime cornerstone member of Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes who also has toured with Bon Jovi and led his own bands. Babjak is the co-founder and lead guitarist for The Smithereens. They were joined at this show by bassist and vocalist Ron Haney of Bandiera’s band, and Babjak’s son Tom on drums.
Also contributing, for about half the show, was Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms, who added percussion, occasional backing vocals, and lead vocals on the Smithereens songs “A Girl Like You” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.” (Since the death of Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio in 2017, Wilson has often performed with Babjak and other surviving band members.) And saxophonist Dave Watson joined the group for two numbers, “Wipe Out” and “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Besides the two Smithereens songs and the Bandiera-written, rockabilly-ish “C’mon Caroline,” they played rock and pop standards. They started with mini-sets devoted to the music of The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young before becoming more eclectic in the final third of the show (which ranged from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”).
Bandiera usually sang lead, and he and Babjak each took plenty of guitar solos. The show peaked, for me, with epic solos by both during Young’s “Down by the River” and “Like a Hurricane.”
Wilson kicked off the show with two Gin Blossoms hits, “Till I Hear It From You” and “Hey Jealousy.” He performed with only his son, Grey, accompanying him on percussion.
“Finally we get to play!” Bandiera said upon taking the stage.
“This is great,” added Babjak. “We can escape from the world right now, for a little while, and forget everything, and just have a good time.”
Despite not having rehearsed for the show (according to Bandiera), they stayed onstage for about two hours and gave the impression of being able to last for two more. Bandiera joked that they’d perform until one of the musicians passed out.
Not surprisingly, there were a few sloppy moments. But overall, Babjak and Bandiera demonstrated an amazing ability to sound convincing in a wide variety of musical styles, and their solos were rarely less than mesmerizing. Haney handled most of the show’s backing vocals, and took over on lead vocals for “California Sun”; Tom Babjak made the most of his opportunity to play with Keith Moon-like fury during the Who numbers.
Here is the show’s set list and, below it, some videos:
“Til I Hear It From You” (Robin Wilson)
“Hey Jealousy” (Robin Wilson)
“Rock and Roll Music”
“A Hard Day’s Night”
“I Can’t Explain”
“The Kids Are Alright”
“Rock and Roll”
“Down by the River”
“Like a Hurricane”
“Rockin’ in the Free World”
“Hippy Hippy Shake”
“Behind the Wall of Sleep”
“A Girl Like You”
“Twist and Shout”
“Should I Stay or Should I Go”
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.