The third Saturday of every January marks a special event for Smithereens fans young and old---the legendary group’s annual show at BB King’s in Times Square. (This year it falls on Saturday, January 18th.) What makes the gig special is not only the intimacy of the space but the fact that this is the show the international ‘Reens fans fly in for from all continents; the foreign fans enjoy “meeting and greeting” with the New York tri-state area fans and often form enduring friendships! It’s also a show where the band pulls out many of their “deep cuts,” often speaking to fans in the weeks prior to the show about what they’d like to hear.
|BB King's marquee for last year's Smithereens show|
I recently spoke to lead guitarist Jim Babjak about why the BB King’s show is so popular (it’s always Standing Room Only) and about the longevity of the New Jersey-band, who will be celebrating 34 years together in March almost in the same lineup. Bassist Mike Mesaros retired from the music business in 2006 to spend more time with his family and pursue a career as a chef, and the LA-based former fan Severo “The Thrilla” Journacion (as famous for his madcap screams as his ace bass playing) took over.
The affable Babjak revealed, “With the BB King’s show, the fans will come all the way from Canada and places that we do not play that much. They plan their vacation around the show. We played BB King’s the first time in October 2001 and it replaced the Bottom Line gig that we used to do. Originally, we thought it was too soon after 9/11 to play but it was packed.”
|Jim Babjak (l) and Pat DiNizio (r) at the Smithereens Union County Music Fest show, September|
These Jersey boys still do about 100 live dates a year--which is not bad for guys now in the 56 to 58-year-old range--and they recently were hand-selected by Tom Petty to open for two months on his summer 2013 tour. (On nights off, they relentlessly and energetically performed solo shows.) Babjak explains, “Tom Petty was in his car and heard our 2011 album. At the time his manager was bugging him for an opening act so he specifically asked for us. It was just the right time and the right place.”
The mega-talented axeman tells the secret for staying together so long: “Pat (DiNizio, lead singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist) always used to say on stage that the reason we have been together so long is that we have no other job skills. We are passionate about what we do. I would never give this up. I think everyone in their lives needs something passionate to do other than working a nine to five job. So many people say, ‘I was in a band by then I decided to become a dentist or a lawyer but I still played on weekends.’ I enjoy playing for the fans because they are enjoying it. If they were not enjoying it, I wouldn’t be doing this anymore.”
The group always does meet and greets after the shows and many fans date to the band’s first major label album in 1986 or even circa 1983-85 when they played the Court Tavern and other famous Jersey and NY landmarks on the live music circuit. The Smithereens played the famous Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street so many times that they were asked by the club’s owners to be the last band that ever set foot on their famous stage on closing night in October 2012. Drummer extraordinaire Dennis Diken mentioned at the end of the set that Kenny’s was actually where he met his wife Donna back in the 80s.
|A funny moment from last year's show at BB King's--Lto R, Pat DiNizio, Jim Babjak and Severo Journacion|
He was inspired to go out into the audience way back at the beginning of the Smithereens touring career as a successful band. Babjak says, “I started going out into the audience in 1986. Our manager asked us to extend solos on the hits and I was like ‘Why’? (Laughs.) At the time I had a wireless system and would be going all the way to the back of the theaters and I have been going out into the audience ever since. I now have a cord so it limits me. I enjoy doing it. In the late 80s I had a ponytail and fans would pull on it as I played.”
He continues, ‘I always wanted to go out in the crowd. I might have gotten that from Sam Butera who played with Louis Prima—he used to go out into the audience during ‘The Saints Go Marching In’ and there would be a line of fans dancing behind him.”
The Smithereens have an exceptionally close bond with their fans as demonstrated by the comments on their official Facebook page and via their “meet and greets” which includes a lot of hugging. When I ask Babjak about this he responds, “At this point we know a lot of them by name. Sometimes they bring their families. I am a fan myself; I like hanging out after the show. I like the feedback.” The band will also be performing at The Fest For Beatles Fans at the Hyatt Hotel near Grand Central at noon on Sunday, February 9th and will be available to sign their new and very timely Beatles tribute CD called The Smithereens Play The Beatles February 11, 1964, Washington, DC Concert. For tickets, go to thefest.com.
The brand-new Smithereens Play The Beatles February 11, 1964, Washington DC Concert is actually the third album in a trilogy of Beatles tribute albums that includes 2007’s Meet The Smithereens and 2008’s B-Sides The Beatles. How did they decide to cover the Washington, DC show? “It was because of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles arrival (in the US) and them doing The Ed Sullivan show,” states Babjak. “No one was talking about their DC concert, which was their first full-length concert here, and Pat thought it would cool if we covered it. We did the same exact songs in the same order. The CD cover was my idea—there was an album called Beatles In Italy with them at the Washington DC concert. It is a beautiful photo and we just superimposed us on the Washington, DC Coliseum stage.”
Babjak adds with a laugh, “I remember when Trivial Pursuit first came out and one of the questions was, ‘Where did the Beatles first play in the US?’ and the answer was wrong. It said Carnegie Hall. I was really tempted to write in and tell them about their error!”
They hope to also be working on an album of all-new original material soon and get it out this summer. The new material has been a long time coming. Babjak explains the delay: ”We were going to start writing new stuff right before Sandy hit. The studio (in Hoboken) we were going to use got studio damage. Everything got in the way. The Tom Petty tour came up and we were going to use a block of time in a studio and then couldn’t do it. It is always talked about every time we get together. Also, our rehearsal space Su Casa (in the East Village) closed down. It is always like ‘when can we get together’ (to start on the new record) because we all have families and other responsibilities.”
Tickets for the BB King’s show are available now for $28 in advance at www.bbkingblues.com and $33 the day of the show at the box office. Showtime is 8 PM and doors open at 6PM. There is no opening act and there is a $10 minimum at each table. This is an all ages show. Location is 237 West 42nd Street just east of Eighth Avenue. Phone is 212-996-4144. Be there or be “Sorry” (which just happens to be a name off a single from the 2011 album)! As an added bonus, Babjak promises to be taking out his rare red 1961 Rickenbacker that he played on all the group’s material from the 80s and 90s; the guitar is used so infrequently because it’s delicate and does not travel well. (Trust me, to hear that vintage rockin’ Rick with its jangly tone is a real treat!)
All photos by Anne Raso except group publicity shot courtesy Koch Records.