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The Smithereens with Marshall Crenshaw
Southern Theatre : Columbus, Ohio : July 28, 2018
|Out Of The Blue
Publications Association, LLC
The Smithereens are, if anything, the archetypical American Power Pop band. They have spent years languishing in
obscurity. They have also enjoyed brushes with mainstream success. Unfortunately, that success never reached the
levels of contemporaries like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Gin Blossoms. Ultimately, they have ended up a cult band,
passionately loved by their loyal followers but unknown elsewhere.
When Smithereens singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio died in December, it seemed for many to be the end of this
long-lived band. Much to their credit, The Smithereens were beloved by fellow Power Pop artists with similar cult
followings. Rather than cancelling upcoming shows, The Smithereens were joined by several guest vocalists from
those cult bands, playing a series of Pat DiNizio tribute shows. Of those guest vocalists, most notable have been
Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson and veteran singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
This past summer, The Smithereens embarked upon a concert tour featuring Crenshaw as guest vocalist.
This entourage visited Columbus on July 28, performing at the Southern Theater. This historic venue proved
to be an appropriate setting for The Smithereens to receive an outpouring of love from their Central Ohio fans.
When this tour was announced, I had reservations. While I enjoy both The Smithereens and Marshall Crenshaw,
the artists are known for dramatically different sounds. The Smithereens mated dirty guitars with Pat DiNizio’s
gruff-but-soulful East Coast croon. Crenshaw has been hailed as the rightful heir to both Buddy Holly and
John Lennon, creating a jangly and rootsy brand of Power Pop with his sweet Midwestern tenor. The common
bond was their artistry of melodic and hook-laden songs. Would this combination work? We would soon find out.
Opening the show with The Smithereens’ near-signature song, “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” it was apparent that
Marshall Crenshaw was not out to imitate DiNizio. Visually, the singer was intentionally set apart from the band.
Smithereens Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, and Mike Mesaros wore all black, while Crenshaw donned a pink sport shirt
and a snap-brim cap. Vocally, his sweet tenor shone through, giving the songs a feel rooted in mid-period Beatles.
Crenshaw’s vocal timbre evokes a matured Buddy Holly, while his behind-the-beat phrasing owes a debt to
John Lennon, circa 1966. This was a very good thing, as it brought out the quasi-psychedelic feel of many
While Crenshaw performed commendably on the up-tempo numbers like “Top of the Pops,” he especially excelled
on the slower and quieter songs. He found a beautifully soulful niche on romantic tunes “In a Lonely Place,”
“Cut Flowers,” and “Especially for You.” The singer channeled the heartbreak and pathos of DiNizio’s lyrics, equal
to the songwriter himself.
This pathos also came through as various Smithereens paid tribute to their departed leader. Bassist Mike Mesaros
recalled how the band practiced in the basement of Pat DiNizio’s childhood home, which was a perfect lead to the
heartfelt “House We Used to Live In.” Both drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak seemed choked up as
they spoke lovingly of their bandmate.
In introducing his lead vocal spotlight, “White Castle Blues,” Jim Babjak admitted his delight in playing the fast food
chain’s hometown. He also used the opportunity to discuss the recent death of his wife, Betty, from pancreatic cancer,
and how White Castle set up a scholarship fund in her honor. Several White Castle executives sat in the front row,
appreciative of the free advertising granted by Babjak’s tongue-in-cheek number.
Slightly later, Dennis Diken revealed that Marshall Crenshaw played keyboards and guitar on the band’s full-length
debut “Especially for You,” albeit under the alias “Jerome Jerome.” As a further nod to their guest vocalist,
the drummer introduced the Rockabilly-flavored “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid” as a song that could easily have been written
by Marshall Crenshaw himself! The comparison was apt, as the night’s interpretation sounded like an outtake from
the singer’s 1982 debut album.
As the concert progressed, fans were treated to songs from all phases of The Smithereens’ 38-year career.
Not just original compositions, but also influential covers from the likes of The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Buddy Holly.
A highlight came when Marshall Crenshaw put down his guitar and exited the stage. Babjak, Mesaros, and Diken
seamlessly segued into The Who’s instrumental “Sparks,” which elicited a well-deserved round of applause.
Many fans sang along with Smithereens’ irresistible melodies, a totally appropriate form of late Baby Boom
and Generation X nostalgia. All songs were greeted with enthusiastic applause, especially the closing encore,
“Blood and Roses.” The haunting melody, driven by an unforgettable minor-key bass line, is one of those songs
that should have been a bigger hit than it was. Then again, that seems to be the story of The Smithereens:
major talents who should have been much bigger stars then they are. Of course, that level of success would
have denied Central Ohio fans the opportunity to see this fantastic band pay tribute to their fallen singer in such
an intimate, beautiful venue.