SMITHEREENS, CRENSHAW ARE MORE THAN A MEMORY

Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, Marshall Crenshaw, and Mike Mesaros bring the Smithereens songbook to the stage of the Pollak Theatre on March 7.   (photo by Neil Seiffer)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), February 27, 2020

 The Asbury Park Paramount was packed with people and studded with celebs from all walks of public life this past October 27, as The Smithereens found themselves inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame — an honor that placed the “Garage-rock State” institution not only in the company of music makers from Bruce to Basie, but also among a veritable “honor (pork)roll” of leaders in the fields of science, statecraft, the humanities, and athletic accomplishment. Following an introduction by E Streeter Garry Tallent (who acknowledged becoming aware of the band via TV’s Uncle Floyd Show), the surviving ‘reens paid tribute to Pat DiNizio, the vocalist and principal songwriter who passed away in 2017; thanked a litany of friends, family members, managers, producers, club owners, DJs, rock mags — and, in the case of drummer Dennis Diken, cited a “holy place” known as the record department at Two Guys.

The reference to that long-gone but still-cherished discount retailer was simply one more supremely Jersey moment on the timeline, for an internationally celebrated group whose relationship to their forever-home state can be said to be of the “perfect-together” persuasion. For Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak, and bassist Mike Mesaros (all of whom grew up in Carteret) — as well as for proudly proclaimed “Scotch Plainsman” DiNizio (who wore hometown hats ranging from neighborhood garbageman, to candidate for U.S. Senate), the mutual love affair had a favorite trysting place in and around Asbury Park.

“Asbury, and the Shore have always been special to us…going back to 1980,” says Diken, himself an in-demand player (and occasional WFMU disc jockey) whose skills on the skins have been sought by the likes of Tallent, Ben E. King, and ex-Kink Dave Davies. “Lance Larson let us have the opening slot for his band Lord Gunner, for a couple of months…so there we were, just starting out, and with a residency at The Stone Pony!”

The band would return numerous times to the Pony hitching post, all during a nearly 40-year run that would see them navigate the ups and downs of the record-industry rollercoaster, get into rotation on MTV (as well as “alternative” radio outlets like the late lamented WHTG-FM), and make additional local stops at stages like The Fast Lane, where The Smithereens would first share a bill with their spiritual kin and contemporary, Marshall Crenshaw.

It was at the Wonder Bar that Babjak, Diken and Mesaros would play one of their last gigs with DiNizio in July 2017; the frontman by that point having lost the ability to wield a guitar after a protracted struggle with injury-related health issues. For the singer (whose local connection was such that he would come to be named to the Asbury Angels memorial hall of fame), it was no obstacle to delivering a set of those signature songs — “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Only a Memory,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Blues Before and After” — moody, mature, magnificent songs that staked out the crossroads of alternative/punk energy and the ambitious “teenage symphonies” of such heroes as Brian Wilson and The Beatles. And, because it was a Smithereens set, there were covers of everything from the Fab Four’s “Yesterday” and the 60s staple “Gloria,” to the pre-Elvis chestnut “Milk Cow Blues,” and the classic theme from TV’s “Batman” (this last in tribute to the late Adam West).

“Pat always gave it a thousand percent…he admired, we all admired, those showbiz people who were real troupers,” says Diken — with the legendary expert authority on popular culture adding, “we believe that you perform til you drop…and I always loved Dick Shawn!” (a reference to the 1960s-70s comic actor who literally died on stage).

“As far as being more mature sounding than other bands, I guess it just related back to the fact that we liked to read books, take in movies, and just experience life,” the drummer observes. “We appreciated being able to go to places like Scandinavia, where we played pretty early on, in 1984….and a place like The Stone Pony helped us to step out of our little North Jersey womb.”

Another crucial step outside the cradle came courtesy of the dearly departed Greenwich Village landmark Kenny’s Castaways, where the frequently featured Smithereens became the last band to play in 2012 — and where “we cut our teeth; met people in the industry, and found a spiritual godfather” in the owner, Pat Kenny.

For Di Nizio’s bandmates, then, there was never any question that the road would wind on — and on March 7, that road will lead once more down-the-Shore, when The Smithereens are joined by guest vocalist-guitarist Crenshaw for a Pollak Theatre concert on the Monmouth University campus.         

Continue reading

THE BIG GIG GOES UP, AS THE LAKEHOUSE BEAT BUS ROLLS ON

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), February 6, 2020

Photos by Jeff Crespi (Beat Bus photo by Tom Chesek)

 “We are all created creative,” says Ben Marino. “It’s just a matter of pulling that part of ourselves out.”

By that metric, the young veteran drummer might seem to have clued in to one of the most perfect situations in all of “creation” — a job as a music director at Asbury Park’s Lakehouse Music Academy.

It’s there inside the busy complex overlooking Wesley Lake that the Bloomfield, NJ resident helps oversee a slate of instructional programs designed to pull that passionate purveyor of music out from students that range in age from six months, to (currently) 75 years young.

While at first glance the LHMA mission might seem similar to numerous “School of Rock” programs from sea to shining sea, this is Asbury Park — and here in the music-mad little city that makes a gloriously big noise, it’s simply not enough to adhere to a strictly by-the-numbers classic-rock canon. And, while other instructors might prompt their students to essentially play dress-up in the boots of Janis, Jimi or Jim, the Lakehouse team takes a different tack, in which the student performer is encouraged to build something all their own, on the foundations of those innovators from pop history.

In the words of Lakehouse founder/owner (plus in-demand producer, engineer, songwriter and session musician) Jon Leidersdorff (pictured), the curriculum centers around “teaching kids to write and evolve as a creative person…and apply those skillsets you get from being creative.”

Beginning at 5 pm on Friday, February 7 — and continuing through two more music-packed mornings, afternoons and nights — the program and the people who power it take center-lanes stage at Asbury Lanes, as the reborn bowl-a-rama plays host for the second consecutive year to the student showcase event known as The Big Gig.

The culmination of the academy’s Fall 2019 semester, the weekend-long affair is one of three such showcases presented throughout the year; a modern-day vaudeville that brings more than 60 different bands — each representing a specific LHMA class in one of four age categories (Cadet, Get Started, Core, Adult Night Session) — to the stage that’s spotlighted a dazzling array of local, national, and international talent.

Picking up from previous Big Gig weekends at venues like House of Independents and the Wonder Bar, the triple-header event is completely free of charge to attend, and open to all members of the public. In other words, one need not be a family member of a participating student to appreciate the level of talent on display — in fact, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that music fans can expect to get an early look at acts that will soon be graduating to “grownup gigs” on many of the area’s most stellar stages.

“One of our Core program bands, a group called Mannequin Arm, opened for Southside Johnny at the Count Basie Theatre on New Year’s Eve,” says Marino of one the academy’s latest success stories. “They started all the way back in our Lakehouse Littles program, and graduated to other levels.”

Indeed, a glance at the roster of Moto Records, the in-house label operated by Lakehouse, displays several acts that should be familiar to regular followers of the Asbury-centric music scene — acts like Sonic Blume, Ella Ross, and one of the newest breakout performers, Lauren Gill (who will be headlining a Stone Pony matinee show on the afternoon of Sunday, February 16).

Continue reading

GARDEN STATE SONGWRITERS MAKE THE SCENE, FOR YOUR NJ-MENT

L-R: Dean Friedman, James Dalton, and Nikki Briar Shore up their local base of support, in three separate events going on Friday, March 29.

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link News (Long Branch, NJ) March 28, 2019

SOUNDS: Dean Friedman at McLoone’s Supper Club 

He stood out from the pack of earnest 1970s singer-songwriter types by staking a sonic streetcorner all his own; a place where it was perfectly permissible to name-check fast food franchises, New Jersey shopping malls, New York television stations, and such august institutions as the Saddle River Little League. His wryly  good-humored takes on contemporary life would occasionally land Dean Friedman in the midst of controversy — and that same sense of humor has always served as a “critical survival tool” to the Paramus native whose lone foray into the US Top 40 (“Ariel”) was a reference-packed romance that turned a chance meeting with a peasant-bloused, vegetarian Jewish girl (“I said Hi/ She said  Yeah, I guess I am”) at Paramus Park into the retro-catchiest pop song of 1977.

“I always had an affinity for those kind of details,” observes the composer whose descriptions of dates with the titular Ariel included onion rings at Dairy Queen, a band gig at the American Legion hall, Annette Funicello movies on TV, and a fundraiser for radio station WBAI. “They help to conjure up that time and place.”

Having performed occasionally in Asbury Park since those days — beginning with a  high profile 1977 opening set for Southside Johnny and the Jukes — Friedman makes an encore appearance at McLoone’s Supper Club this Friday night, March 29, with a set of “story songs” drawn from a 40 year recording career. Scheduled for 8 pm, the show that finds Friedman performing solo on guitar and keyboards is described as  “a deep dive” into a catalog that spans eight studio albums and more than 300 released tunes; an “atypical set list” about which the songsmith says “I figured it’s stime to give some of those overlooked songs a chance to shine…but no worries, I’ll always play the fan favorites.” Continue reading

CONSIDER THE SOURCE: NJ REP PREMIERE IS RIPPED FROM (AND RIPS) THE NEWS

L-R: Conan McCarty, Andrew Rein, and Eleanor Handley co-star in THE SOURCE, the new play by Jack Canfora that enters its world premiere engagement this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SuzAnne Barabas

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link News (Long Branch, NJ) March 7, 2019

“SAFE” — it’s a word that somehow applies itself very well to New Jersey Repertory Company, nearly every bit as much as it doesn’t.

After all, as the area’s sole theatrical troupe dedicated exclusively to the promotion of new and original works for the stage, the Long Branch-based professional playhouse has seldom played it safe in its choice of edgy and unorthodox scripts — taking things far afield of the family musicals, drawing-room mysteries, and Neil Simon sitcoms that once comprised what we thought of as “local Shore theater.” In the process, founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas have continued to cheerfully challenge their faithful audiences with deeply adult themes, complex characters, you-can’t-DO-that-on-stage tech work, language as salty as the briny Atlantic surf, and the occasional flash of full frontal.

When Jack Canfora refers to New Jersey Repertory as “safe,” he’s talking about a creative concern that’s offered snug harbor to the Huntington, NY-based playwright and his body of work throughout the years — a place of “insightful, talented artists who are all working toward the same goal…they’ve been very supportive and tremendously generous to me, and whatever my career is, I owe it to them.”

It was NJ Rep that first committed to a full staging of a script by the young writer, actor and musician from Long Island, with a production of the drama Poetic License that almost didn’t make curtain when the lead actor had to bow out at the eleventh hour. The show would actually go on to an Off Broadway run in NYC — as would Jericho,another Canfora work that faced its first sudience in Long Branch — and in between those two scripts, NJ Rep would premiere Place Setting, a cocktail-saturated suburban storm that counted Jack Canfora himself among its ensemble cast.

In addition to establishing a fruitful working relationship with “Gabe and SuzAnne,” the Jack-of-many-trades found a likeminded creative collaborator in Evan Bergman, the in-demand director whose projects as a Rep regular number more than a dozen — and who helmed every one of Canfora’s productions in downtown Long Branch and at New York’s 59E59 stage. For his first project at NJ Rep in some eight years (not counting a contribution to one of the company’s short play festivals at their new West End Arts Center facility), the playwright reunites once more with Bergman and the Barabas team, for the world premiere of The Source, an intimate drama that’s been described as being “ripped from the headlines” — or, perhaps more to the point, the moral gray areas behind the black-and-white headlines.

Continue reading

MARSHALL CRENSHAW’S JOYFUL WINTER DANCE PARTY

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, February 28 2019 (photo by Jeff Fasano Photography)

For a guy who’s rather successfully cultivated his own voice within an often crowded singer/songwriter wilderness — a stake that boasts a reputation as a go-to crafter of universally appealing tunes, a relaxed and unpretentious delivery, an understated (and underrated) rock guitar style, a self-effacing sense of humor, and a frankly awesome passion for pop music — Marshall Crenshaw can sure make himself at ease in another performer’s skin.

It’s a phenomenon that dates back even before the Detroit native emerged as a maker of music under his own name, when Crenshaw clocked countless performances as John Lennon in the official late-70s touring troupe of Broadway’s Beatlemania. When the producers of the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba were “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” for someone who could both act and make heartbreakingly sweet sounds as Buddy Holly, they turned to the bespectacled musicologist who had previously appeared in Francis Coppola’s film Peggy Sue Got Married. And when the surviving members of the legendary 1960s Detroit countercultural rock force MC5 assembled for a tour in 2004, Crenshaw was among the trusted peers who ably stepped up and kicked out the jams, on behalf of the departed Rob Tyner and Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Of course, for more than a quarter of a century Shore audiences had embraced Crenshaw as a frequent visitor to venues that ranged from Clarence Clemons’s Big Man’s West, to Monmouth University,  the House of Independents, and even a neighborhood church in Atlantic Highlands. Crenshaw returned the love in kind; penning a tune called “Bruce Is King” (retooled as “Blues Is King”), recording his La Bamba contribution at Shorefire Studio in Long Branch, and releasing a live album of a 2001 Stone Pony gig under the title I’ve Suffered For My Art…Now It’s Your Turn.

That special bond with musical fans of all things Jersey attained a new level in the latter half of 2018, when the surviving Smithereens called on Crenshaw to take over lead vocals and guitar in  honor and memory of the band’s longtime frontman Pat DiNizio, the hitmaking songsmith (and onetime city councilman in Scotch Plains) who performed one of his final shows at Asbury Park’s Wonder Bar — and who, as an honorary icon of the city’s scene, was included among the most recent inductees to the Asbury Angels memorial hall of fame.

Making an acclaimed appearance at  last summer’s Hoboken Arts & Music Festival — and taking their act out to California for a leg of shows in early February — Crenshaw and the Smithereens created something that they’ll be revisiting regionally on May 25, when they reconvene for a show at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. But when Marshall Crenshaw takes the Wonder Bar stage this Saturday, March 2, he’ll be once again focusing upon his own prodigious catalog of compositions — the kind of track record (“Someday Someway,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” the Gin Blossoms’ “Til I Hear It From You”) that most singer-songwriters would give the right side of their brain to be able to claim.

Curiously, this will mark the very first matchup of Crenshaw with Lance and Debbie’s Circuit landmark, even as it places him in comfortable company — longtime backing combo The Bottle Rockets. Continue reading

IT’S PRIME TIME FOR SOME PRIME CUTS OF (MARC) RIBLER

Marc Ribler (left) and Steven Van Zandt (photo by Rene van Daimen)

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, February 21 2019

“He got the bug again,” says Marc Ribler of his friend and frequent collaborator Steven Van Zandt, by way of explaining how that iconic prime mover ‘n shaker of the Shore music scene — a guy who, after all, had diversified his portfolio in recent years to score significant successes in the realms of on-camera acting, Broadway theatrical production, satellite radio, education, philanthropy, and everything this side of branded spaghetti sauce — came to rely on the veteran musician as his music director for a newly resurgent iteration of the Disciples of Soul.

“Steven was working with Darlene Love, and asked me to be her music director for some shows,“ recalls the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose own solo trajectory ranges from charting songs for other vocalists, to earning a reputation as an ace interpreter of signature stuff from the classic rock playbook. “We’d do a few of his compositions at each show — ‘‘Love on the Wrong Side of Town,’ ‘Til the Good Is Gone,’ ‘Forever’ — and we all came to the realization that, wow, there’s a great body of work here.”

“A year later he called me to do a one-off festival in London, and, well…ever sonce then he’s been immersed in his own artistry. Right now his music is the center of his universe.”

Having “toured continuously”  in recent years as Van Zandt’s right-hand lieutenant (as well as co-producer of SVZ’s recording sessions), the Brick Township-based Ribler prepares to hit the international road once again, on the momentum of two new projects with the resurgent Little Steven: the just-issued Soulfire Live! box set/ Blu-Ray package, and the May 2019 release of the all-new studio set Summer of Sorcery.

“If he had somehow misplaced that songwriter within, he’s reconnected with it in a major way,” says Ribler of the bandana’d bandleader whose upcoming itinerary brings him to Australia in April, and various European ports of call in May (with some high profile CD release shows planned for New York and LA). “He’s a man on a mission!”

Before all that, however, Marc Ribler returns, in the company of assembled Friends, to the Asbury Park venue where he’s found happy harbor for the past several years — Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, the sophisticated space-age saucer that hosts not just one but twoRib-sticking repasts in the next couple of weekends. This coming Saturday, February 23, it’s a birthday salute to the life and musical legacy of the “Quiet Beatle,” George Harrison — a retrospective for which Ribler is joined by the in-demand rhythm section of Rich Mercurio (drums) and Jack Daley( bass), as well as by keyboardist Andy Burton from SVZ’s band. Then the following Friday, March 1st, it’s an Electrifying Tribute to The Who that finds the core band joined for the occasion by vocalist Dale Toth.

“Everyone in the band grew up with this music…it’s in our DNA to begin with,” observes the chief Friend  whose repertoire of special salute sets also includes a Traffic tribute performed in partnership with Jukes keyboardist Jeff Kazee. “We’ve been celebrating George’s birthday for five years now…both here, and at the Cutting Room in New York…and we like to do it at least once or twice each year.”

Scheduled for 8 pm, the Harrison set traces the personal and professional journey of a Beatle bandmate whose years in the considerable shadow of Lennon and McCartney saw him emerge over time as “an artist with an incredible sense of self…and a genuine humanity.”

Continue reading

SHORE’S CHAMPIONSHIP BLUESBUSTER BRINGS O’REE-LY BIG SHOW

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, February 7 2019

It was some time in 2006 when Shore music fans came to the sobering realization that, effective immediately, they would have to share dibs on Matt O’Ree with the rest of the planet.

The clincher was Guitar Center’s annual King of the Blues competition for that year; a contest that the young blues-rock guitarist from Holmdel aced over a field of thousands of contenders for the throne. In addition to the instantly conferred cred, it was an accolade that netted O’Ree a cash prize, a Gibson Guitars endosement, a personal Guitar Center shopping spree — and a brand new Scion automobile, about which more in a bit.

It was a sure shot in the arm for the young veteran who’d made his rep playing in just about every indoor or outdoor setting to be found on the regional scene — from the portable parkside stages of the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation’s summer series, to the hallowed halls of BB King’s, and pretty much every barroom, bistro, barn, backyard BBQ or boardwalk bench between.

“I was using credit cards to finance my career up to that point,” recalls the guitarist who formed his first edition of the Matt O’Ree some 25 years ago, in 1994. “So no matter how much mileage I get out of that win, being able to pay off those cards was the greatest feeling!”

That said, the single greatest thrill of Matt O’Ree’s career arguably occurred nearly a decade after that, when he was tapped by Bon Jovi to serve as an onstage guitarist for the mega-band’s Burning Bridgestour of major international markets.

“Suddenly I went from playing to a couple of dozen regulars at a local bar, to being in front of anywhere from 50 to 70 thousand people,” he says. “It was an awesome perspective to be able to experience…truly a magic moment.”

As the hometown guitar hero confesses, the aftermath of the Bon Jovi tour was an interval that “took a bit of adjustment,”while he resumed a schedule of hyper-local gigs that included a first-Friday monthly set at the music-friendly Red Bank bar Jamian’s — a tradition that he maintains to this day.

At the same time, a sold-out “homecoming” show at the Stone Pony served to “O’Ree-inforce” the fact that the guitarist was operating on a newly heightened level of play —  a fact borne out by the release of his 2016 album Brotherhood.

A followup to such multiple Asbury Music Award-winning opuses as Shelf Life, the long-player found the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist (then newly named to the NY/NJ Blues Hall of Fame) working within some rarefied company — in particular Bon Jovi charter member David Bryan, with whom he cemented his friendship and professional partnership via their co-authorship of the album’s breakout track “My Everything Is You.”

The keyboard man would go on to make several guest appearances at O’Ree gigs — and listeners would soon enough discover that the cut “Black Boots” boasted backing vocals by one Bruce Springsteen. In addition to the legendary Memphis guitarman Steve Cropper, a deeper delve into the recording sessions revealed additional collaborations with Blues Traveler harpist John Popper and Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell— with O’Ree divulging that he’s “still sitting on”tracks featuring those artists, whose contributions were cut from the final release due to legal issues.

Even with all of that collaborative energy zinging about, the most significant partnership of Matt’s career was soon to manifest itself — and when the Matt O’Ree Band takes to the stage of Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre this Saturday, February 9, audiences will key in on a genuine labor of love in big, bluesy bloom. Continue reading

IT’S JUST AROUND THE CORNER: LIGHT OF DAY KEEPS THE AP HOME FIRES LIT

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 17 2019

To hear the man tell it, “Longevity is a benchmark of greatness” — and given that the speaker is Tony Pallagrosi, the words are no mere fridge-magnet platitude. After all, this is the veteran music scene mover ‘n shaker whose unimpeachable cred extends from his days as one of the cats in the band (The Shots, The Asbury Jukes), to host of some much-missed Shore nightspots (The FastLane, Xanadu), to co-founder of major concert venues and promotion entities (Starland Ballroom, Concerts East), to manager of The Weeklings — and quite possibly all the way to “the other side,” thanks to Asbury Angels, the musical memorial initiative that he chairs.

Pallagrosi, however, isn’t referring to himself, or to any of those aforementioned feathers in his cap, but to the endeavor that may ultimately stand as his most lasting legacy: Light of Day, the music-driven fundraising vehicle that’s  illuminated some of the darkest winter days and nights in this City of Summers for well nigh two decades.

Co-founded by Pallagrosi with music promo/ management pro Bob Benjamin as an awareness resource for Parkinson’s Disease research — and inspired by Benjamin’s own diagnosis with the disorder — the annual slate of star-studded happenings grew out of a 40th birthday party for Bob at the Stone Pony; taking its name from the Springsteen soundtrack song “Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day” on its way to becoming a sprawling affair that’s spanned several continents, major North American cities and additional satellite events throughout the calendar year.

Of course, along the way Light of Day became indelibly identified with the stamp of Benjamin’s long-time friend Bruce Springsteen — not just via the organization’s name, but in the very real presence of The Boss as an onstage participant and de facto ringmaster for the majority of those all-star Bob’s Birthday concerts. As an undeniable draw (and a focal point for some tantalizing will-he-or-won’t-he buzz each year), the Bard of the boardwalk has generously shared the stage with a core cast of frequent-flyer performers (including Joe Grushecky, Willie Nile, and Steve Forbert), as well as drop-in guest stars that have ranged from Southside Johnny, Darlene Love and Gary US Bonds, to Light of Day movie star (plus high-profile person with Parkinson’s) Michael J. Fox, and  The Sopranos’ Vincent Pastore.

While the nonprofit Light of Day Foundation is a year-round entity upon which the sun never sets, the heart and soul of the positively charged enterprise remains LOD Winterfest, the mid-January jamboree of activity that commandeers the stages, storefronts and saloons of Asbury Park during the post-holiday “off season” interlude when most other Shore towns are deep into a long winter’s nap. Having offered up a couple of preliminary pace-setter events on January 13 (see the feature on Bob Burger in last week’s Coaster), the circus comes to town in full force for a long weekend that begins tonight, January 17, with a choice of tuneful entertainments that includes a “Hall of Fame Jam” featuring veteran Bruce drummer Vini Lopez (Langosta Lounge), a special edition of Sandy Mack’s Wonder Jam at the Wonder Bar, and an official kickoff concert at downtown’s House of Independents that spotlights such next-gen talents as Williams Honor and Anthony “Remember Jones” D’Amato.

“No other town this small has such a vibrant music scene,” says Pallagrosi. “And at the end of the day, I want everyone involved.”

Continue reading