Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Smithereens and Robin Wilson impress with power, songcraft at The Coach House

The Smithereens with guest vocalist Robin Wilson; The Matter

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA

When: Saturday, March 11, 2023

Next: The Smithereens will perform with Marshall Crenshaw at Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, PA on March 16


Review and photography by Robert Kinsler

Guitar great Jim Babjak, left, with singer Robin Wilson at
The Coach House on March 11, 2023.

Established in 1980, The Coach House has hosted countless performances by The Smithereens since the mid-1980s. The New Jersey rock troupe 
— a band launched the same year that the enduring San Juan Capistrano venue opened its doors — has miraculously continued to attract sold-out and enthusiastic crowds with rousing performances despite the death of original lead singer-rhythm guitarist Pat DiNizio at the age of 62 on Dec. 12, 2017. The band's magical run was bolstered in 2022 by the release of a glorious full-length collection (The Lost Album) originally recorded in 1993 while the band was between record label contracts.

Before their performance on March 11, The Smithereens had performed there with guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw in February 2019 (read my review of that concert HERE) and again in August 2021 (read my review of that event HERE). However, the more recent date marked the first time that the outfit had performed at the Coach House with guest vocalist Robin Wilson (lead singer of the Gin Blossoms).

Guest vocalist Robin Wilson and The Smithereens performing early in their set
at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA.

Lead guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion (the latter filling in for founding bassist Mike Mesaros who was unable to perform this night) were on fire, obviously enjoying the moment and joined Wilson at various moment during the 110-minute concert recalling experiences performing at The Coach House.

Guitarist Jim Babjak

Drummer Dennis Diken

Opening with the hard-hitting "Behind the Wall of Sleep," a strong cut from their 1986 album Especially for You, Wilson's signature vocal style immediately impressed as a perfect fit with the sound of The Smithereens. Wilson encouraged the crowd to raise their hands and get everyone into upping the energy during the opening moments of the set.

Robin Wilson in action at The Coach House.

Wilson pulled out his tambourine to enhance the sound on "Top of the Pops" from 1991's Blow Up — the track's finale was an explosion of celebratory rock with Babjak unleashing an extended guitar solo; the famed producer of that album, Ed Stasium, happened to be in the audience as well making the performance even more special. 

The 110-minute performance succeeded on every level with the quartet delivering inspired performances of the Smithereens' best-known songs as well as equally marvelous deep cut album favorites along with a few select covers.

For aficionados of the Smithereens' expansive discography there were standouts across the night. The affecting mid-tempo "Sorry" (from the band's 2011), "Strangers When We Meet" (featuring some of Wilson's most nuanced singing of the night), the psychedelic '60s-minded "Groovy Tuesday" and wistful "Green Thoughts" (the latter introduced with a tribute to the late DiNizio) were early highlights.

After a wonderful performance of their 1988 classic "Only a Memory," Babjak playfully noted "I feel like it's 1986 again."

Drummer Dennis Diken behind the kit.

For casual fans, the majority of the band's hits and FM rock radio standards were performed with power via mostly faithful arrangements, albeit with extended solos showcasing the might of Babjak and Diken ("Dennis and I have been playing together since we were I'm on Medicare," Babjak mused). 

Wilson explained that before his success as frontman of the Gin Blossoms, he worked at several record stores in Mesa, Arizona. He noted that while working at Rockaway Records, "I used to play this song on repeat over and over again." That song, "Cut Flowers," was beautifully sung and it was among the night's shining moments.

The Smithereens' hard rock instincts were highlighted via a strong late-set string of favorites stretching across "Blues Before and After," "Miles From Nowhere" (with Diken playing Keith Moon-like dynamics during the song's guitar solo) and "House We used to Live In" (the latter which included a musical interlude with the band playing a selection from The Who's Tommy).

Bassist Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion.

Robin Wilson, left, with drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Severo 'The Thrilla'
Jornacion performing "Blood and Roses" at The Coach House.

With the house lights all red, 
Jornacion launched into the well known bass line that anchors "Blood and Roses." The six-minute rocker allowed the band's players to continue to showcase how powerfully the mix of musical muscle, terrific singing and masterful songcraft work in a live setting.

Drummer Dennis Diken, left, and singer Robin Wilson.

The encore included a soulful take on the Sam Cooke classic "Chain Gang," Badfinger's 1970 hit "No Matter What" and fiery version of their own 1989 favorite "A Girl Like You."

The Matter performing on March 11, 2023.

Opening the bill was Orange County, CA-based quartet The Matter. The band's melodic rock was a good fit with the headliners, and several songs stood out 
— notably "Someone Grab the Reins." A faithful cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" was also well performed. 

From left, Jim Babjak, Robin Wilson and Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion.

The Smithereens setlist on March 11, 2023

Behind the Wall of Sleep / Top of the Pops / Sorry / Strangers When We Meet / Groovy Tuesday / Green Thoughts / Only a Memory / Now and Then / Don't Look Down / Cigarette / Cut Flowers / I Don't Want to Lose You / Yesterday's Girl / If the Sun Doesn't Shine / Blues Before and After / Miles From Nowhere / House We Used to Live In / Blood and Roses 


Chain Gang (Sam Cooke cover) / No Matter What (Badfinger cover) / A Girl Like You

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