At The Smithereens’ Dec. 4 concert at the Carteret Performing Arts and Events Center — which represented both the grand opening of the venue and a homecoming concert for the band — guitarist Jim Babjak of The Smithereens looked out at the large audience and pronounced it surreal.
Drummer Dennis Diken shared a stream of memories throughout the evening — of old friends, teachers, stores, watering holes and a local band, The Crownsmen, that he remembered from his childhood.
Bassist Mike Mesaros remembered the atmosphere of the Babjak family’s Carteret garage — where the band practiced, decades ago — in vivid detail. “There was always some Hungarian smoked meats hanging from the rafters,” he said, “and there were copies of The News Tribune and The Star-Ledger on the ground, soaking up the pork fat, which was blood red from all that real Hungarian paprika — not from ShopRite, from Hungary!”
Later, after Mesaros, Babjak and Diken played “Sparks” — the pulse-pounding instrumental from The Who’s Tommy — together, Babjak said, “That’s what it was like in my garage, back in 1973.”
The Smithereens — together for more than 40 years and still an undeniably potent concert act — have played countless gigs in their home state. But nothing, before, like this one, in a sparkling new, state-of-the-art, 55,000-square-foot, 1,650-capacity venue located in an area of town where they used to take music lessons and buy magazines.
“Hello, fellow Carteretians,” said Diken, early in a show that felt like a high school reunion — and was that, literally, for many in the audience.
Diken, Mesaros and Babjak have been performing with either Marshall Crenshaw or Robin Wilson (of The Gin Blossoms) on lead vocals since the 2017 death of original Smithereens frontman Pat Dinizio (who, unlike the others, grew up in Scotch Plains). For this one night only, they asked both Crenshaw and Wilson to perform with them.
The two stayed onstage throughout the show, singing backing vocals for each other when they weren’t singing lead. Crenshaw also played electric guitar throughout the night; Wilson mostly stuck to percussion, though he did play a little acoustic guitar, too.
They also performed some songs as duets, including, as the first encore, “Til I Hear It From You” (see video below), the 1995 Gin Blossoms single that Crenshaw, Wilson and Gin Blossoms member Jesse Valenzuela co-wrote. They did this one by themselves, with the three Smithereens taking a break. (See, below, a setlist for the entire show, including who sang what.)
The band rocked for more than two hours, playing material from all stages of its career plus covers of songs such as The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” and The Everly Brothers’ ” So Sad to Watch Good Love Go Bad” (in tribute, respectively, to the Stones’ Charlie Watts and Don Everly, who both died this year), plus Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and “Sparks.”
Wilson and Crenshaw made it clear that they recognized the significance of the event. Wilson, who is from Arizona, introduced “If the Sun Doesn’t Shine” by saying “I’ve known it for 32 years. I’ve been performing this at open mic nights and Friday night happy hours in Tempe, Ariz., for all these many, many years, and to be here, onstage in their hometown, performing my favorite (Smithereens) song, is a huge, huge deal for me.”
After the song was over, he added, “That’s it: That’s the bridge between Carteret and Tempe, Ariz.”
Here is the show’s setlist. Lead vocals provided by Robin Wilson (RW), Marshall Crenshaw (MC), Jim Babjak (JB) and Dennis Diken (DD).
“Behind the Wall of Sleep” (RW/MC)
“Top of the Pops ” (RW/MC)
“Groovy Tuesday” (RW)
“Strangers When We Meet” (MC)
“Now and Then” (RW)
“Only a Memory” (MC)
“Green Thoughts” (RW)
“Waking Up on Christmas Morning” (JB)
“I Don’t Want to Lose You” (DD)
“Chain Gang” (RW)
“So Sad to Watch Good Love Go Bad” (MC)
“Life Is So Beautiful” (JB)
“If the Sun Doesn’t Shine” (RW)
“Cut Flowers” (RW/MC)
“She’s Got a Way” (MC)
“Miles From Nowhere” (RW)
“Drown in My Own Tears” (RW)
“House We Used to Live In” (RW)
“Blood and Roses” (RW/MC)
“Til I Hear It From You” (RW/MC)
“No Matter What” (RW)
“Get Off Of My Cloud” (MC)
“A Girl Like You” (RW/MC)
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