In the music spotlight: The Smithereens

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Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens perform at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles 2015. | Kenny Williams Photo

For 38 years, the Smithereens have been America’s Band. For countless fans, they always will be. The New Jersey rockers emerged in 1980 with a sound that combined British Invasion heroes including the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who with scrappy garage rock on singles including “A Girl Like You.” With “Only a Memory” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” frontman Pat DiNizio displayed a knack for melancholy melody and heartbreaking lyrics. The singer was supported by the sharp playing of lead guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken – both of whom remain walking encyclopedias of classic pop and rock riffs. The group has also featured gifted bassists, including founding member Mike Mesaros on favorites like “Blood and Roses.”

In December 2017, DiNizio died at home following years of declining health and nerve damage. The band was on a winter break from touring, but the 62-year-old singer had never planned to retire. “I think his philosophy was to play to the end,” says Diken. “He often cited people like Ernest Tubb and Stan Kenton, who did just that.”

In January, the band played a show at New Jersey’s Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. Upon DiNizio’s passing, presenter and E Street Band guitarist Little Steven encouraged the Smithereens to retool the booking as a heartfelt tribute with guest vocalists. “It was intense work, but there was so much love and support,’” says Diken. “I think it did give us all a bit of closure, but it still seems abstract that Pat is no longer here.”

Although plans are still developing, the Smithereens intend to continue. “We were overwhelmed at the amount of encouragement from our fans,” says Diken. “They fervently asked us to keep the music alive, and we’re going to do it.”

Next week, the Smithereens will play a special concert at the Genesee Theatre with headliner Dave Davies. “It will be our first full set with a different singer,” says Diken. “Robin Wilson from the Gin Blossoms will be with us. He sang ‘Blood and Roses,’ ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep,’ and ‘Green Thoughts’ at the Count Basie show. He did a wonderful job, and has real passion for the music.”

Diken anticipates availability of a treat for fans at the show, with the physical release of the album “Covers.” The sprawling set features classic pop songs that informed the Smithereens’ sound, collected from different sessions throughout its career. “‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ is a song we all loved from The Beach Boys’ ‘Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)’ LP,” says Diken. “We recorded it for the ‘Girls About Town’ EP, which was our first release. I also love Jimmy’s take on ‘Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home,’ a favorite of ours from The Kinks’ ‘Face To Face’ album.”

Diken will work a double shift at the Genesee. Following his set with the Smithereens, he’ll drum for former Kinks guitarist Davies. Diken recalls his bandmates as school-aged pals, and their collective ardor of for the legendary British rockers. “We used to stalk them in the ‘70s,” he says with a laugh. “We’d hang out around their hotel. They were very nice to us, actually.”

Now, Diken is a longtime friend and bandmate of the groundbreaking musician. “There are certain moments in the show, particularly on a ballad like ‘Strangers,’ when I can mentally pause to smell the roses,” he says. “I’ll catch a wink from Dave, and I’ll think back to 1964 when I first bought ‘You Really Got Me.’ I do not take any of this for granted.”

* The Smithereens, with Dave Davies, 7:30 p.m., Apr. 19, Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee St., Waukegan, $39.50-$89.50;

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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