Marshall Crenshaw helps The Smithereens embrace their past, move on to future

Smithereens Crenshaw review

PHOTOS BY VERNON WEBB

From left, Jim Babjak, Marshall Crenshaw and Mike Mesaros perform at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, June 1.

The surviving Smithereens faced two decisions of late, with one contingent upon the other. Should they continue playing as a unit? And, if so, who would handle the vocals?

So far Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Mike Mesaros are batting a thousand, as evidenced by their performance with Marshall Crenshaw on Friday at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair.

During a set of almost two hours, The Smithereens were their usual selves. They cranked out hit songs and some less familiar, showed energy and enthusiasm and played L-O-U-D.

The difference this time, of course, was that singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat DiNizio was not onstage with his longtime bandmates from Carteret. After deciding to carry on following DiNizio’s death in December, The Smithereens wisely chose not to find someone to mimic the resonant rumble their mainstay perfected. (See the current version of Foreigner for one example of vocal cloning.)

After the epic “Blood and Roses” was played Friday, Crenshaw answered the first, essential question about whether The Smithereens were to continue without their leader. “What are these guys supposed to do? Go home and not play anymore? Hardly,” he said.

From left, Dennis Diken, Jim Babjak, Mike Mesaros and Marshall Crenshaw at Outpost in the Burbs.

In the revamped band’s first New Jersey show with a single vocalist, Crenshaw acquitted himself well in place of DiNizio — who is not to be replaced. It would be foolish and unrealistic for the band to want that — they do not — or for anyone to try. Fans who expect a DiNizio sound-alike will be disappointed.

Crenshaw was unassuming onstage and managed to be heard most of the night over the wall of sound that cascades from The Smithereens. He was, however, at his best — as was the band — on the mid-tempo numbers that were played at a lower volume. This was evident on “Spellbound,” “Especially for You” and “In a Lonely Place.” His understated inflection and intonation were best heard here. In addition to playing rhythm parts throughout the night, Crenshaw took guitar solos on several songs.

Before the band went into “Strangers When We Meet,” Crenshaw recalled playing keyboard parts on the version that appeared on The Smithereens’ 1986 debut album, Especially for You. It would have been nice to hear him play keyboards at some point during the night, as that would have added another instrument to the mix and offer a contrast to the guitar-heavy set.

Crenshaw is part of a mix of vocalists who have worked with the band since DiNizio died. Among them are Robin Wilson (Gin Blossoms) and Ted Leo, both of whom performed with the band at its marathon tribute to the Scotch Plains native in January at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.

The Smithereens in their 1980s-’90s heyday were labeled a “pop” band by some. If that label means catchy, infectious songs, it fits. But due to the way the band brings DiNizio’s writing to life, “heavy pop” is a better term. In some later performances, the band was a three-piece, plus vocals, due their leader being unable to play rhythm guitar because of physical issues. At times while Crenshaw sang Friday, he did not play guitar; thus, The Smithereens created the sound of a power trio.

And powerful it was.

Diken, who always seems to have a gig waiting with a big-name talent, is spotless on drums – you can set your watch by him. Still, he adds plenty of snap, crackle and pop to his playing and brought a personal touch between songs with his comments and remembrances.

Mesaros can make a spectator tired just by watching his energetic playing. He always seems to be moving about, engaging the other band members and playing his bass in dramatic fashion while locking in with Diken and interacting musically with Babjak. One notable example: Mesaros moving across stage to join Babjak for the shout-along chorus on “House We Used to Live In.”

Babjak handles lead-guitar duties and is equally adept at crunching out power chords or adding color by playing notes with a lighter touch when needed. He still adds Pete Townshend-like windmill strumming on his guitar — with forward and backward rotations. Like his other two bandmates, he also spoke regularly between songs.

Diken, as the driver of this musical train from behind his kit, often called out to start the songs: One, two, three, four, go! It was like the band never left the basements and garages of its yesteryear.

The band members, Crenshaw included, clearly showed affection and admiration for each other onstage, with pats on the back, smiles throughout and easy banter. That kind of chemistry is hard to fake, particularly in a smaller venue with the audience up close.

The Smithereens and Crenshaw will continue performing this summer. They will appear for two shows July 14 at The Iridium in New York. Show also are set for July 26 in St. Charles, Ill.; July 28 in Columbus, Ohio; Aug. 24 in Riverhead, N.Y.; and Aug. 25 in Natick, Mass. For information, visit officialsmithereens.com.

Showing good business sense, The Smithereens on May 25 released a 22-song CD, COVERS. Previously available only digitally on iTunes, it features songs made famous by The Beatles, The Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, Frank and Nancy Sinatra and others.

Among the highlights of Friday’s show:

Twice in the early going there was an electrical glitch on stage and the band had to restart those songs. That prompted Babjak to say: “Okay, Pat, cut it out.”

The Smithereens dug out “Can’t Go Home Anymore,” with Diken letting the crowd of about 550 know that it was the first time since 1994 that the band was playing the song.

Diken and Mesaros acknowledged Babjak’s parents in the audience after playing The Who’s “Sparks,” with the bassist recalling the band working up that song in the Babjaks’ laundry room.

Mesaros said of DiNizio’s late father, “God bless you, Nick DiNizio,” while recalling that he “never said a word” though he had to get up for work at 4 a.m. and the band would be “blasting away” five hours before that in the family’s basement.

On a steamy night inside the First Congregational Church — and with no air-conditioning to provide relief — Diken raised his cup of water and asked the crowd to join him in toasting “our dearly departed brother, Pat,” before the band went into “Drown in My Own Tears.”

Toward the end of the set, Diken got the crowd to clap along as he began the rhythmic intro to “Blood and Roses,” the band’s enduring breakthrough hit. Mesaros soon came in with the hypnotic bass line and it was off to the races.

After that song, Diken paid tribute to the fans by saying, “It’s been a tough go the past several months. But the love and support you have showed us is very heartening.” With that, the quartet tore into a raucous version of “A Girl Like You.”

At the end, Diken said, “We’ll do it again.” Then Mesaros closed things out by saying, “Good night, Pat.”

And a good night it was for The Smithereens as they go forward, for their fans and for remembering Pat DiNizio.

From left, Dave DeSantis, Kristin Pinell, Kurt Reil and Rick Reil of The Grip Weeds at Outpost in the Burbs.

The Grip Weeds opened with an acoustic-flavored half-hour set that featured well-crafted originals and a fine version of the George Harrison-written Beatles song, “The Inner Light.” Their crystal-clear, three-part harmonies are reminiscent of work by the Mamas and Papas (minus the second female part). Their vocals also call to mind the impeccable harmonizing of Fastball, the band from Austin, Texas, best known for its blockbuster “All The Pain Money Can Buy.”

The band, which is based in Highland Park, is comprised of: Kurt Reil (vocals, guitar, percussion), Kristin Pinell (vocals, guitar), Rick Reil (vocals, guitar, piano) and Dave DeSantis (bass).

Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at tskevin@live.com.

Here is the setlist:

“Only a Memory”
“Top of the Pops”
“Sorry”
“Even If I Never Get Back Home”
“One Look at You”
“Can’t Go Home Anymore”
“Time Won’t Let Me”
“Drown in My Own Tears”
“Spellbound”
“Especially for You”
“In a Lonely Place”
“Well … All Right”
“Cut Flowers”
“Crazy Mixed-Up Kid”
“Strangers When We Meet”
“House We Used to Live In”
“Sparks”
“Behind the Wall of Sleep”
“Time and Time Again”
“Blood and Roses”
“A Girl Like You”
“When I Get Home”
“Now and Then”

And here are some videos:

“Sorry”

“Behind the Wall of Sleep”

“When I Get Home”

“Strangers When We Meet”

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