Before The Smithereens performed “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid” at the Hoboken Fall Arts and Music Festival, Sept. 30, the band’s drummer, Dennis Diken, mentioned that he and his bandmates were fans of Marshall Crenshaw before Crenshaw’s first album even came out, and that Crenshaw influenced Pat DiNizio’s songwriting.
In fact, he said, when Crenshaw first heard “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid” (a rockabilly-flavored track from The Smithereens’ 1986 debut album, Especially for You), it sounded so much like something he would do that he joked to DiNizio, “I’ll see you in court.” Crenshaw also played keyboards on Especially for You.
Crenshaw, in other words, is part of the extended Smithereens family, and since the death of DiNizio, in December 2017, he has been singing lead and playing guitar with surviving members Diken, Jim Babjak (guitar) and Mike Mesaros (bass), occasionally, as has Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms. The free Hoboken festival gig — which packed Washington Street on a gorgeous early fall day — was The Smithereens’ second full-length appearance with Crenshaw in New Jersey following DiNizio’s death; they also performed at Montclair’s Outpost in the Burbs in June.
Of course, you cannot replace the irreplaceable: Crenshaw cannot duplicate DiNizio’s deep, resonant, haunted voice, and is not trying to. His more fragile, plaintive tone is better suited to some Smithereens songs, including “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid,” than others, but he’s doing as well in his daunting role as anyone could, and Babjak, Mesaros and Diken remain a formidable force behind him. Even a song such as “Blood and Roses,” which you almost can’t imagine being sung by anyone except for DiNizio, was a highlight as the set-closer in Hoboken, thanks to the brilliance of DiNizio’s songwriting, the rock solid playing of Babjak, Mesaros and Diken, and Crenshaw’s ability to adapt to new material.
“We were lucky to have (DiNizio),” said Mesaros, earlier in the set. “But his music still lives.”
Because of the festival setting, The Smithereens didn’t perform for quite as long as they would have in a concert of their own, but their setlist (see below) still had room for six covers: The Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me,” The Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” Buddy Holly’s “Well … All Right,” The Beatles’ “When I Get Home,” The Who’s “Sparks” and, as the first encore, Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” Some of these songs are featured on The Smithereens’ Covers album, recorded with DiNizio and released on CD this year, for the first time (for information, visit officialsmithereens.com). But they seemed to be in the set, not just to plug the album, but to give Crenshaw, Babjak, Diken and Mesaros an opportunity to revisit their shared classic-rock and power-pop roots, together.
It’s going to be interesting to watch where this new foursome goes, from here. Will they try to generate some new material of their own? Delve into Crenshaw’s catalog? Start mixing in some Smithereens material that has rarely been performed live? Anything is possible.
The setting of the show prompted some memories from Smithereens members about working on songs for their second album in a Hoboken studio, and performing at Maxwell’s. Also helping to make it special, Babjak’s son Max proposed to his girlfriend, Lauren, before the encores, and Lauren accepted.
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers, the RocknRoll Hi-Fives and the Zydeco Revelators also performed on the main stage, and there were two other stages as well, plus more than 100 arts, crafts and food vendors on Washington Street. The Arts and Music Festival is an annual tradition in Hoboken — this is its 25th year — and includes a spring festival, as well as one in the fall.
Here is The Smithereens’ setlist and, below it, some videos from the show:
“Behind the Wall of Sleep”
“Top of the Pops”
“Time Won’t Let Me”
“Strangers When We Meet”
“Only a Memory”
“Now and Then”
“Crazy Mixed-Up Kid”
“Girl Don’t Tell Me”
“Well … All Right”
“When I Get Home”
“House We Used to Live In”/”Sparks”
“Blood and Roses”
“No Matter What”
“A Girl Like You”