NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Two of the founding members of the Smithereens reunited at New Brunswick's Court Tavern on Saturday, Feb. 3, to pay tribute to the late Pat DiNizio, the band’s lead singer, who died in December.
The concert, titled “Blood & Roses: The Court Tavern Memorial Tribute to Pat DiNizio,” featured 15 of the alternative band’s hits from over the years.
DiNizio passed away on Dec. 12, leaving a hole in the hearts of many. In his final years, he would often perform solo shows at the Crossroads in Garwood, just a stone's throw from Scotch Plains, where he lived until his death.
“We’re here to celebrate Pat’s life, songs, the band before,” guitarist Jim Babjak told the crowd.
During the sold out concert, musicians cycled in to play different tribute songs. Those who made it on stage had at some point performed alongside DiNizio and other Smithereens, opened for them or did some kind of musical piece with them.
Headlining a show was a blend of musicians from different bands who’ve had such opportunities. There was Kevin Hyland on drums, Keith Hartel on bass and vocals, and Tom Jorgensen on vocals. All three were once members of the band Platinum Load, while Hyland and Jorgensen were also part of the band Swingin’ Neckbreakers. On guitar were Pete Tomlinson, Jeff Jefferson and Doug Vizthum.
Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak performed three of the band’s biggest hits, “Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.”
The two were joined by The Grip Weeds, a Highland Park band that formed in the late 1980’s and had the chance to tour with the Smithereens and open for them at different concerts.
Kurt Reil, the singer and drummer for The Grip Weeds, filled in for DiNizio on those three hit songs, something he said wasn’t easy.
“There’s a big hole in the middle of the band,” Kurt said, in an interview before the show. “We had to fill that hole, we had to stand in those shoes and sing those songs, and it’s not that easy because the songs are tailor-made. He wrote them in his voice.”
His brother, Rick, and vocalist and guitarist for The Grip Weeds, agreed: “He’s known for his voice as well, a very distinctive voice.”
But Kurt admitted that in doing the tribute, he’d do his best to “fill the shoes,” and to “make it come alive.”
“You’ve got to give it something, you can’t be a parody, then you’re just a fake,” Kurt told TAPintoNewBrunswick.
As both the Reil brothers gladly pointed out before the show, they and The Grip Weeds trace their roots back to New Brunswick, just like with the Smithereens.
The two frequented the “Captain Video” record store on Easton Avenue, owned by Babjak. It was a hang-out spot for their circle of friends.
In the 1980’s, the music scene all had some connection to New Brunswick, Highland Park and Rutgers University, be it someone who lived, studied or worked in the area.
“We first heard ‘Especially for You,’ the Smithereens breakthrough album,” we first heard that in his store before it came out,” Rick said.
Hartel and Jefferson, who were performing that night, both used to work at the record store according to Babjack. Many of the musicians met each other through the store, and by extension, through the Court Tavern, which opened in 1981.
Rick for example, met his wife, Kristen Pinell, at a Smithereens concert in the same venue.
She’s since been part of the band, and did guitar and harmony at the Feb. 3 concert. Babjak’s girlfriend at the time, now his wife, went to Rutgers, as did his two sons.
DiNizio, having grown up in Carteret and passing away in Scotch Plains, has essentially been a life-time Central Jersey resident. In the late 1970’s, DiNizio teamed up with Diken, Babjak and bassist Mike Mesaros. The quartet became the Smithereens just a few years later.
“When Pat and I met, it was kind of a meeting of the minds and a meeting of the souls, and kindred spirits and hearts,” Diken told the crowd.
Many musicians and die-hard music fans will emphasize the importance of the Court Tavern for success of the Smithereens.
It is, after all, one of the last surviving music venues for the city’s rock music scene, if you don’t count the basement shows that would constitute a fire inspector’s worst nightmare.
For local musician Doug Vitzthum, the Smithereens were “the best thing that ever happened out of New Brunswick,” according to an interview with TAPintoNewBrunswick shortly after DiNizio’s death.
Having worked at the Court Tavern for nearly 15 years, Vitzthum said he had his finger on the pulse of Central Jersey’s vibrant, underground rock and punk rock music scene, and he knew what people were inclined to like.
Whenever the Smithereens would play, the Court Tavern was packed constantly, Vitzthum said, and considered; the group the venue’s “house band” for a time.
At the Feb. 3 concert, Kurt, once off the drum set and doing just vocals, reminisced in some rather wacky adventures of the band.
Once, during the Smithereens peak popularity years, the truck made a pit stop at the Court Tavern, in between the massive venues of New York City and Philadelphia.
“I remember the Smithereens gear truck comes rolling up, and it’s this huge tractor trailer, and they start loading out the gear, amps, drums, all kinds of equipment, and it was piled high,” Kurt told the crowd.
“So they just loaded it right on in, and it was loud, and I think they blew the sound in the court one night, and the whole place went black.”
The Smithereens coming to the Court Tavern was always a treat for the local music scene, which drew out a packed crowd. This was especially the case during the February sold out show. At their peak before the grunge era of the 1990’s, the only New Jersey musicians who could rival the band were Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.
“I think a lot of our success was based on how Pat’s lyrics resonated with so many people, so whatever he was expressing spoke to a lot of folks, Diken told TAPinto New Brunswick shortly before the show. “
Diken added: “We all grew up in workings class towns, working class families. We always had a very strong work ethic when it came to recording, when it came to touring. We worked very hard and we always felt, and I know Pat would say this, we were just a reflection of our audience.”