NJ Star-Ledger on Smithereens' Tommy

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Fri May 1 21:46:55 UTC 2009

>From the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

Genuine rockers rock 'Tommy'
by Star-Ledger Staff 
Friday May 01, 2009, 4:49 PM
The Smithereens Play 'Tommy' 
The Smithereens 

Classic rock is on its way to being a kind of classical music, with yeoman musicians interpreting the creations of titans long gone or soon to be. It's rare, though, when one of those interpretations is by a real band with its own history and sonic personality.

Never sounding kitschy or slavish, "The Smithereens Play 'Tommy' " explodes with love and expertise. It's not a track-by-track re-creation of the Who's "Tommy," the pioneering rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy, released on record 40 years ago. The Smithereens bypass the opera and concentrate on the rock for a 13-song, 41-minute distillation of what most made the members want to be in a band as '70s New Jersey teens -- the galvanizing tunes, the power-chord majesty, the careening drama. 

The Smithereens had their own chart hits with "A Girl Like You" and "Blood and Roses" in the late '80s, but fell into a fallow '90s like a lot of power-pop groups. But the quartet has gotten some of its mojo back in middle age, boosting its profile with two early Beatles covers albums, a disc of rock'n'roll Christmas songs and a back-to-the-bars live set recorded at an old Garden State haunt. A studio album of new Smithereens songs, the first since 1999, is promised for the fall.

It was a photo of the Who on Jim Babjak's notebook that led the nascent guitarist to meet drummer Dennis Diken on their first day of high school in 1971, their shared love of British Invasion bands becoming a bond. Three years later, they were playing a show for a church youth group meeting in Carteret's Bethlen Hall. That initial instrumental set featured mainly Who songs, including plenty from "Tommy," with Babjak mimicking guitar hero Pete Townshend, windmilling arms and all.

The Who's studio "Tommy" was a subtle, almost chamber-music production, with loud electric guitars rarely accented. In concert, the Who would play "Tommy" more ferociously, with the wild electric performances documented on such releases as the deluxe "Live at Leeds" reissue. In its way, "The Smithereens Play 'Tommy' " blends the best of both worlds --studio-honed harmonies and amps turned up to 11.

As for Townshend with the original, this feels like Babjak's album in many ways, his acoustic and electric guitars a rush -- from the chordal flourishes in "Pinball Wizard" to the psychedelic solo in "Sparks." He also sings lead on "Go to the Mirror," "Amazing Journey" and, in the album's highlight, a spectacular version of "Christmas." Diken usually has a more controlled style than Who drummer Keith Moon, but one can feel him stretching to drive the songs. Though singer-guitarist Pat Dinizio can swallow Townshend's lyrics at times, his way with Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Eyesight to the Blind" is darkly soulful.

The sessions were recorded with high-impact beauty at Kurt Reil's House of Vibes studio in Highland Park, the site for the past few Smithereens releases. It all adds up to a record that thrills and touches in equal measure, making an old "Tommy" fan feel strangely young.

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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