“Getting Better All the Time:" A Night with the Smithereens
Scotch Plains' Pat Dinizio performed his fifth annual Halloween/Jam fest Sunday.
Here's what's great about the Smithereens:
You don't want to stop listening to their music, which explains why the upstairs hall at the Italian-American Hall on Valley Avenue in Scotch Plains was packed on October 30 with hundreds of diehard fans – including a few from the Midwest and California – who didn't want to go home when the show was over around midnight. When the band's lead singer and songwriter, Scotch Plains' own Pat DiNizio, swung into "Blood and Roses," the 1986 hit that sold more than half a million copies, and put the retro rockers on the musical map (after six years of hard days' nights), the fans roared their approval and sang along. A few even jumped onstage and joined the act, as part of the band's wildly popular "fanjams."
DiNizio has been hosting his combination Halloween special/live concert/and birthday party (he was born on October 12), since 2005 in his Scotch Plains home, but the popular event needed more space this year. The Smithereens are still rocking after all these years – 30, in fact, in 2010 – and seem to be "getting better all the time," as their musical heroes, the Beatles, sang. The evening also included solid sets from several impressive amateur bands (Home At Last, the Scotch Plainsmen, and Sonny Lee), along with performances by the Gripweeds, a New Brunswick-based band, which lived up to DiNizio's introduction as "a great American pop band," and the British rock legend Graham Parker, whose musical range and style defies labels. The $50 ticket included the music, catered food, an open bar offering beer and wine, and, for a few bucks, tickets to win a 50/50 drawing or one of two guitars signed by the Smithereens.
The secret to their lasting success is simple, said Brian Baummer, a fan and now friend of Pat's who traveled from Connecticut with his wife, Nicole. "Their music is so stripped down and so powerful. They don't have any special effects. They just plug in directly to the amps – you never see that anymore." Another secret: Fans becomes friends. For his 45th birthday, Nicole hired Pat for a "living room concert" in their home, which explains why the suburban couple will drive for hours to catch a Smithereens concert. "Concerts are meaningful and wonderful," said Nicole, smiling, as she pointed at the happy faces around the room.
"I've wanted to come for five years," said Vidya Tolani, a fan who traveled from Oakland, Calif., with her husband for the weekend. "It's such a nice atmosphere and better than a regular concert," she added, as she corralled DiNizio for a snapshot.
"This is one of the greatest (musical) gatherings for 'weekend warriors' ever," enthused Sonny Tannenbaum, the lead singer of Sonny Lee. "It's priceless." Tannenbaum, who ran DiNizo's campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2000, and had sung in a band as a teenager, picked up a Karaoke microphone in a restaurant in Little Italy a few years ago when DiNizio urged him to get up and sing. "My rendition of 'Werewolves of London' brought down the house," recalled Tannenbaum.
It's the same story with the amateur musicians who play or sing in Home At Last or the Scotch Plainsmen. Sam Fairley, an insurance agent who lives in Scotch Plains, plays rhythm guitar for the Scotch Plainsmen, which features an all-Beatles repertoire and DiNizio as the lead singer. "He's a great performer and a great guy," Fairley said, who played his first concert at the 2009 Halloween bash, a benefit which raised money for a local child with leukemia.
The parties also get personal for DiNizio. "In 1976 or 1977, I heard an album called Heat Treatment that changed my life and encouraged me to become a songwriter," he said, as he introduced Parker to his fans. Before he introduced the band, which includes original members Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken, along with Severo Jornacion, DiNizio pointed to a picture on the wall of Montazzoli, the town in Abruzzi, in central Italy, where his grandfather was born. Then he singled out his father, Nick, sitting near the stage, and mentioned his mother, Antoinette, who were married in the hall in 1951. Several fans cheered loudly when they heard DiNizio mention his mother, who is a familiar fixture – and the first face – that many fans see when they arrive at a concert.
Tolani, from California, summed up the evening: "It's like going to a private party."