Throughout their career, even at the largest venues they played, The Smithereens always seemed like a hard-working club band. Following the death of frontman Pat DiNizio in December, surviving members got together, Jan. 13, for one more show in that vein at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, filling the venue with loud, celebratory sound, well past midnight.
They had a lot of help. Though every Smithereen can sing lead — and did, for at least one song, this night — guest stars joined them on all but a handful of the 33 songs. Money raised went to the Basie’s new Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship Fund. (Additional donations can be made here.)
The show was originally planned as a Smithereens/Patty Smyth & Scandal double bill, to be hosted by Little Steven Van Zandt (as part of his Underground Garage at the Basie series) in a club format, with an empty floor instead of seats in the theater’s orchestra section. After DiNizio’s death, it turned into a tribute.
Smyth and Scandal still performed an opening set, and dedicated their version of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to DiNizio. And Van Zandt joined Smithereens members Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Mike Mesaros for the opening number of their set (“Sorry”) and the final encore (“A Girl Like You”).
Calling the evening “very poignant and very sad,” and adding that DiNizio “had one of the most unique rock voices,” Dave Davies of The Kinks performed a sweet, touching version of his own “Strangers.” Nodding to some of DiNizio’s other primary influences, there were also songs in the show by Buddy Holly (“Well … All Right,” sung by Marshall Crenshaw), The Beatles (“Please Please Me,” sung by Graham Maby and Kenny Howes), George Harrison (“All Things Must Pass,” sung by John Jorgenson) and The Who (the explosive “Sparks” instrumental, from “Tommy”).
But the rest of the evening was devoted to Smithereens material, including signature songs such as “Only a Memory” (sung by Richard Barone) and “Time and Time Again” (sung by Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones). “In a Lonely Place,” “Cigarette” and “Nobody Lives Forever” were all sung by Freedy Johnston; “Especially for You” and “Miles From Nowhere,” both by Ted Leo.
Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms was given four songs— including perhaps the greatest Smithereens song of them all, “Blood and Roses”— and proved especially skillful at evoking DiNizio’s resonant rumble.
Among other things, the show was a reunion of people who have contributed to The Smithereens’ career. Keyboardist Kenny Margolis, described by Diken as “The fifth Smithereen,” performed on a number of songs. Bassist Severo Jornacion, who took over from Mesaros in the mid-2000s, though Mesaros has returned for occasional shows since late 2016, played bass and/or sang backing vocals on several numbers, and sang lead on “House We Used to Live In.” Kenny Howes, who has also filled in on bass at times, sang “Drown in My Own Tears” and sang with Jim Monaghan on “Blue Period” and with Graham Maby on “Please Please Me.”
Monaghan and Ken Dashow co-hosted the show; both were disc jockeys at WNEW-FM during the time that that station gave invaluable exposure to The Smithereens.
Ed Stasium, who has worked with The Smithereens as a producer, added percussion throughout the night, and Kurt Reil, who has done the same, appeared with his Grip Weeds bandmates Rick Reil and Kristin Pinell on several songs.
Before singing “Strangers When We Meet,” Crenshaw noted that he played keyboards on the studio version of the song (though he is credited as Jerome Jerome). Before Barone sang “Cut Flowers,” Diken said that Barone’s band The Bongos gave them a big boost early on by asking them to open a show at New York’s Bottom Line.
Suzanne Vega and Garland Jeffreys send written messages that were read before the set started. This was followed by video messages from Southside Johnny, Graham Parker, Willie Nile, Pete Yorn, Mark Hudson and yet another Smithereens producer, Don Dixon.
Dixon talked about DiNizio’s “instinctive musicality … that can’t be taught,” and Parker said that when he first heard The Smithereens, in the ’80s, they felt like a “breath of fresh air.” This was echoed by Howes, later, who said “The Smithereens, — in the late ’80s, when I discovered them — saved rock ‘n’ roll for me.”
Before Van Zandt closed the show with “A Girl Like You,” Babjak sang, as the first encore, his own rowdy “White Castle Blues,” and 500 White Castle cheeseburgers, donated by the company, were distributed to audience members. It was also announced that the company is making a $10,000 donation to the Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship Fund.
Throughout the evening, Babjak, Diken and Mesaros — friends since they were all kids in Carteret — played so powerfully and flawlessly together that it was heartbreaking to think that this may have been the last time they perform together, in this way. Of course, it’s probably too early to begin speculating about what the future may hold for them. But I’d love to see, at the very least, an annual night of DiNizio/Smithereens songs at the Basie, benefiting the scholarship fund.
Here is the show’s setlist, with the guest(s) or the Smithereen who sang lead vocals in parentheses. And below the setlist are some videos.
“Sorry” (Little Steven Van Zandt)
“Only a Memory” (Richard Barone)
“Blues Before and After” (Robin Wilson)
“Green Thoughts” (Robin Wilson)
“Strangers” (Dave Davies)
“Baby Be Good” (ZouZou Mansour)
“Now and Then” (The Grip Weeds)
“Drown in My Own Tears” (Kenny Howes)
“Behind the Wall of Sleep (Robin Wilson)
“All Things Must Pass” (John Jorgenson with The Grip Weeds and Richard Barone)
“Even If I Never Get Back Home” (Marshall Crenshaw)
“Well … All Right” (Marshall Crenshaw)
“Strangers When We Meet” (Marshall Crenshaw)
“Cut Flowers” (Richard Barone)
“Blue Period” (Jim Monaghan and Kenny Howes)
“Life Is So Beautiful” (Jim Babjak)
“Cigarette” (Freedy Johnston)
“In a Lonely Place” (Freedy Johnston)
“Especially for You” (Ted Leo)
“Miles From Nowhere” (Ted Leo)
“I Don’t Want to Lose You” (Dennis Diken)
“Top of the Pops” (Bebe Buell)
“War for My Mind” (Mike Mesaros)
“Please Please Me” (Graham Maby and Kenny Howes)
“She’s Got a Way” (Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan)
“One Look at You” (The Grip Weeds)
“Nobody Lives Forever” (Freedy Johnston)
“House We Used to Live In” (Severo Jornacion)
“Time and Time Again” (Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng)
“Blood and Roses” (Robin Wilson)
“White Castle Blues” (Jim Babjak)
“A Girl Like You” (Little Steven Van Zandt with ZouZou Mansour)