The Smithereens

[8 February 2005]

By Lou Friedman

The Smithereens

The Smithereens’ last studio release was titled God Save the Smithereens. The word “Save” could be changed to “Bless”.

Despite their status as a band whose overall popularity waxes and wanes (more often, the latter) by the few national hits they’ve had, the Smithereens just keep on chugging along; hence the blessing. They’re still a very popular band in the New York metropolitan area (all four members are from New Jersey), and their music has a sort of timeless quality. It’s clever and poignant. But most importantly, it rocks.

Honestly, the band doesn’t need any new material to put on a show—the old stuff suffices quite nicely. All pretenses are left at the door. If you want fancy-shmancy, go elsewhere. For the Smithereens, it’s not about the lights. There’s no posing, no special effects. The music (along with Pat DiNizio’s vocals) does all the talking.

The Smithereens were, are, and likely forever will be DiNizio (who also plays rhythm guitar), lead guitarist Jim Babjak, bassist Mike Mesaros, and drummer Dennis Diken. On this particular night at B.B. King’s Blues Club, the band got off to a slow start, but a mishap a quarter-way through their set energized and galvanized the foursome. Thereafter they ratcheted up the intensity.

The band started slow with “Spellbound”. Crowd (and reviewer) favorite “Only a Memory” followed, but the intensity was lacking. Perhaps it was the setting that caused the band to start off this way. Most shows at B.B. King’s Blues Club are done in supper-club fashion: tables and chairs cover the normal, open-floor area, and everyone who attends has to spend a $10 minimum on food and/or drinks. It’s nice when there are blues or jazz acts, but when rockers play the venue, it’s strange: no open floor where people can stand, dance, mosh, etc. (The club isn’t completely stupid however. when Ministry headlined in October, 2004, there were no tables to be found, and no minimum price.)

Don’t misunderstand; the mostly older crowd was certainly into the band. But the rock aesthetic was muted through songs such as “Everything Changes, but Nothing is Stronger Than Love”, “Kiss Your Tears Away”, and “Especially For You”.

As the band broke into “House We Used to Live In” DiNizio, who had trouble with a guitar string earlier, lost his string completely. As his guitar tech worked feverishly to repair the instrument, the other three members began to jam. That inspired DiNizio to run offstage briefly, and reemerge, harmonica in hand. The improvised jam extended the song to nearly 10 minutes. When DiNizio got his weapon back (fully repaired), a new-found intensity had taken the stage. From that point, the night was a continuous high.

Songs such as “Room Without a View” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” kicked major butt, as did “Time and Time Again” and the proper set closer, “Blood and Roses”.

The quartet pulled out all the stops (and raised their amps to about 16 on a scale of 1-10) for the first encore, a blistering, wallpaper-peeling version of “The Seeker”. Of course, the crowd wouldn’t let the band go without hearing their biggest hit, “A Girl Like You”.

As for the players, DiNizio’s voice was a bit low in the mix at times, but his singing and playing (when his guitar was righted) were fine. Babjak is an underrated guitarist, and Mesaros and Diken are one of the best rhythm sections in rock today—understated, yet important to the band’s sound.

The bottom line for a Smithereens performance is quality, and they never fail to divvy that out to their paying audience. Even on the rare occasion when a show starts off slowly, not to worry—it will pick up.

It may be unfair that they never sustained national popularity, but they haven’t stuck it out for over 30 years without reaping some benefits. Plus, just about every power/pop band thereafter has credited the Smithereens as an influence… including the late Kurt Cobain. And if the Smithereens were good enough for Kurt, they’re certainly good enough for you.

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