Three years ago — on Sept. 30, 2018 — The Smithereens and Marshall Crenshaw headlined the fall edition of the biannual Hoboken Arts and Music Festival. On Oct. 3 of this year, they did the same.
Both sets felt like a celebration, for different reasons. The 2018 appearance was just their second in their home state with Crenshaw in place of frontman Pat DiNizio, who died in December 2017. It was great to see them carrying on — continuing to perform DiNizio’s songs — with such capable help.
This fall’s festival — the first Hoboken has been able to mount since fall 2019, because of the pandemic — marked a symbolic return to normalcy, though the pandemic, of course, is still not over. The Smithereens have done some other shows, too, since the summer, but to be able to see one of New Jersey’s most important home-grown rock bands, for free, in such a unique setting … that’s something I’m sure many in the large crowd were getting to experience for the first time in quite a while.
(Of course, every Hoboken Arts and Music Festival, every year, feels like a celebration, to some extent. Downtown Hoboken shuts down for the day, and the city offers free music and other entertainment on three stages, with vendors lining the streets. As long as the weather isn’t too bad — and it was pretty ideal on Oct. 3 — good vibes are almost guaranteed.)
Crenshaw was not the most natural pick for the role of Smithereens frontman. There is a plainspoken fragility to his singing that is very different from DiNizio’s dark, dramatic style. But he and the band have made the partnership work, and the blend felt smoother than it did in ’18.
The setlists of the shows were very similar, with two of the most notable changes representing tributes: a rare (for The Smithereens) excursion into country rock, with a cover of The Everly Brothers “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” in honor of the late Don Everly; and a wonderful, hard-charging version of The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” in honor of the late Charlie Watts. (Everly and Watts died within days of each other in August.)
Drummer Dennis Diken offered a toast to DiNizio. Bassist Mike Mesaros talked about their early days as a garage-rock band (literally practicing in a garage, and playing at Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village). Guitarist Jim Babjak made like Pete Townshend with windmill guitar moves on songs such as “Now and Then” and The Who instrumental, “Sparks.”
The band played all its best known songs – “A Girl Like You,” “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and so on — as well as lesser known material like “She’s Got a Way” and “Life Is So Beautiful.” Band members have mentioned the possibility of releasing another album, though that has not yet happened. Perhaps by the time of their next Hoboken Arts and Music Festival appearance, it will.
Performing immediately before The Smithereens on the festival’s main stage, The Karyn Kuhl Band also offered a raw, dynamic two-guitar attack (by Kuhl and James Mastro, with Larry Heinemann on bass and Jonpaul Pantozzi on drums) and a Rolling Stones cover (“2000 Light Years From Home”). Kuhl, formerly of the Hoboken-based bands Gut Bank and Sexpod, said this was just the band’s second show of the last 22 months, though she has remained active during that time, releasing powerful, timely videos for her protest song “It’s Over” and dark, meditative “The Tower,” among other projects. She played the former at the festival, along with recent songs such as “Hey Kid” and “Lobster Girl”; new songs; and covers of Pylon’s “Cool” and the Ron Davies-written, David Bowie-popularized “It Ain’t Easy.”
Another cover — “I Feel Love,” from, perhaps, a more surprising source, Donna Summer — was the feel-good moment of not just the set, but the day, magically combining the celebratory drive of disco with the noisy catharsis of indie-rock.
Billed third, singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston was backed by another top-notch band (guitarist Dave Schramm, bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, drummer Konrad Meissner). He stuck mostly to ’90s gems such as “Bad Reputation,” “The Lucky One” and “This Perfect World,” though he also impressed with “Neon Repairman,” the title track of his 2015 album, which evokes the lonely majesty of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” (a song Johnston has covered in the past) while also being different enough to not seem like a mere imitation.
Tape Hiss, which performed before Johnston, is led by bassist and singer Ernie Brooks — a member of Jonathan Richman’s beloved Modern Lovers band in the ’70s who later worked with the avant-garde musician Arthur Russell. Also featuring drummer Steve Shelley (of Sonic Youth), trombonist Peter Zummo, keyboardist-singer David Nagler and guitarist-singer Pete Galub, the band did two things that I’m grateful for, resurrecting great Modern Lovers material like “Modern World” and “She Cracked” (which I’ve never heard live before, in any form) and also introducing me to the music of Russell, who I was previously unfamiliar with, but whose quirky, moody songs definitely seem worthy of further investigation.
Here are some videos from throughout the day:
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