At the Hungarian American Citizens Club in Woodbridge, Saturday night, frontman Pat DiNizio said the band was going to play “Especially for You, especially for you.” He meant that the band was going to play its 1986 breakthrough album — including signature songs such as “Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” — in its entirety, as a gesture of thanks to fans who had paid $200 to attend this benefit concert. Proceeds went to the Betty Babjak Memorial Fund, created in the name of guitarist Jim Babjak’s late wife (who died in February of pancreatic cancer) to support Rutgers students who have lost a parent to the disease. For updates on how you can support this charity, visit jimbabjak.com.
But the album was just one of the special things about the set, and not even the most significant one. The band’s original bassist, Mike Mesaros, flew in from his current home in San Francisco to play the parts he originated. It was his first time back in the fold for more than a decade, and he showed absolutely no signs of rust.
Then there was the setting: The building where the Babjaks first fell in love, in the ’70s. Attendees — many of whom were friends of the band, or longtime fans known by them personally — ate a buffet dinner and sat at banquet tables, making the event seem more like a family function than a standard concert.
It was the right setting for this band, which has always had a familial vibe — three buddies from Cateret (Babjak, Mesaros and drummer Dennis Diken) and one from Scotch Plains (DiNizio), who stuck together through many lean years before they finally got signed, and had some hits. They stuck together, too, after the major label deals and the MTV exposure went away, and continue to record and tour today (though with another bass player, Severo Jornacion, in Mesaros’ place).
Buzzed Meg, Babjak’s long-dormant side band (also featuring Diken, Kurt Reil and Kristin Pinell of The Grip Weeds, and Vince Grogan), opened, as did Snowblind, featuring the Babjak’s son, Tommy, on drums. Tommy joined Buzzed Meg for a cover of The Who’s “Substitute,” marking the first time the Babjaks had been onstage together.
The show had so much meaning, on so many different levels, that Babjak’s voice sometimes quivered with emotion when he spoke, and when it came time to say his final thanks and goodbyes, DiNizio broke down in tears.
After the Especially for You songs, the band played “White Castle Blues,” the raucous “Behind the Wall of Sleep” B-side co-written by Babjak, and featuring lead vocals by him. White Castle donated 400 burgers, which were distributed to audience members and to the band onstage, as well.
After that, the band played “Only a Memory,” but the rest of the show wasn’t quite the expected greatest hits run-through (among the songs not played were “A Girl Like You,” “House We Used to Live In,” “Drown in My Own Tears” and “Yesterday Girl”). The band returned often, though, to songs that figured heavily in its early setlists, including “Beauty and Sadness” (which DiNizio said the band hadn’t played “in 25 years or something like that”), The Kinks’ “House in the Country” (sung by Diken) and The Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block #9” (sung by Mesaros).
The band also included two songs from its post-Mesaros album, 2011 — “One Look at You” (a love song, written by Babjak) and “Sorry” — and Mesaros fit in seamlessly.
There are currently no plans for Mesaros to play with the band again.
DiNizio called the show the “first annual” Betty Babjak Memorial Concert, so here’s hoping that it does indeed become an annual event. It’s hard to imagine, though, how this one can be topped.
Here is the show’s set list. Songs in bold are from Especially for You.
“Strangers When We Meet”
“Listen to Me Girl”
“I Don’t Want to Lose You”
“Time and Time Again”
“Behind the Wall of Sleep”
“In a Lonely Place”
“Blood and Roses”
“Crazy Mixed-Up Kid”
“Hand of Glory”
“Alone at Midnight”
“White Castle Blues”
“Only a Memory”
“One Look at You”
“Beauty and Sadness”
“Love Is Gone”
“If I Never Get Back Home”
“House in the Country”
“Riot in Cell Block #9”