This smaller setting allowed for more casual ease and intimacy between the audience and the band.
The Smithereens and Marshall Crenshaw at The Center for the Arts, Natick, MA, August 25
By Karen Schlosberg
There is almost nothing more satisfying than the sound of a loud Rickenbacker guitar backed by a solid rhythm section. And few bands provide that satisfaction like the Smithereens. The New Jersey-bred band — guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist Mike Mesaros — played a propulsive set at Natick’s TCAN (The Center for the Arts) with guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw.
After principal songwriter, singer/guitarist, and founding member Pat DiNizio died in December 2017, the surviving members decided to honor DiNizio’s legacy and continue touring with guest vocalists, including the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ front man Leo, and singer-songwriter Crenshaw (“Someday, Someway,” “Cynical Girl,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind”).
Crenshaw’s flexible tenor lent itself beautifully to the band’s wall of sound, in some cases lightening up the band’s more noir tendencies (sample lyric: “In a world of pain I have no peer”). It was unusual to see him as a rhythm guitarist, but his vintage 12-string Mosrite wove an alluring twangy texture behind Babjak’s forceful playing, both on a Rickenbacker and a Telecaster.
The band opened with “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” its compelling one-two punch of guitar and bass setting a tone for the rest of the set, which covered all the bases in the Smithereens’ four-decade history, and included generous nods to its musical influences interspersed throughout. The May release of a CD of cover songs, called Covers, was enthusiastically represented with the Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me,” the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” and Buddy Holly’s “Well … All Right” (familiar territory for Crenshaw, who played Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba). Other covers included the Kinks’ “Top of the Pops” and “Tired of Waiting,” the Beatles’ “When I Get Home,” a knockout version of Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” and a kinetic charge through the Who’s “Sparks,” added onto the end of the Smithereens’ own “House We Used To Live In” (the Smithereens released a cover of the Who’s Tommy in 2009).
While the band recreates and reinvents covers beautifully, its strength is in its original songs and their ability to turn heartache into transcendent musical joy, expressed particularly well on Saturday with “Sorry,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “A Girl Like You,” “House We Used To Live In,” “Cut Flowers,” “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid,” and “Drown in My Own Tears.” “In a Lonely Place” and “Especially for You” added a melancholy jazz touch that fit well into the otherwise straightforward rock set.
Nowhere was this haunting, plangent mix more apparent than in “Only a Memory” and the closer “Blood and Roses,” where all the elements synergized perfectly to create an almost physical momentum. Mesaros’ assertive bass intertwined with Babjak’s guitar in counterpoints of melody, becoming another lead instrument and creating a signature sound together with Diken’s adamant drums.
The 270-seat TCAN (a former fire station built in 1875) was filled, and this smaller setting allowed for more casual ease and intimacy between the audience and the band; Babjak ventured out into the audience during “Blood and Roses” and Diken shot a picture of the audience before the band left the stage. The band’s sound was sometimes overpowering in the smaller space, however, making the theatre’s offer of free earplugs very attractive.
Karen Schlosberg is a veteran journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone, Musician, Creem, and Trouser Press. She can be reached here or on Twitter @karen1055.