Backyard Concerts with the Stars

By Richard Menta 10/21/06

The most poignant part of the evening came when our host Mark Costanzo showed me the portraits he took of the artists who performed at his studio. The studio is nothing more than the small detached garage of a late 19th century colonial that was converted to serve Mark's profession. It's not a recording studio. It's a photography studio, one that this night was filled with about 50 or so chairs and ringed with both equipment and over a dozen 3 x 2 B/W portraits hanging high on the wall.

What makes these portraits so haunting for me are the ages of the artists that Mark used the tools of his trade to visually record. Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, Robert Hazard, Garland Jeffreys, some I barely recognized until I took a closer look. At that point it clicked - these were the same faces on those 1970's and 80's albums, just a little older and - thanks to Mark's skills with a camera - possessing an unnerving dignity.

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I have never attended a concert in someone's home before, but here I was with my wife and brother walking up a curiously quiet driveway in Freehold, NJ. To be honest I felt a bit awkward as I carried that dish of food into the backyard. The dish is part of the cost of admission. Tonight's ticket ran $35 per person plus a covered plate so we can all share a potluck dinner at the end of the performance. Tonight's guests were Pat DiNizio and Jim Babjak of the Smithereens.

The home is in a very lovely section of Freehold across the street from the same Freehold Borough High School Bruce Springsteen attended. This home is only several blocks away from the house where Bruce grew up, but it could have been miles away in the 1960's. These homes were where the upper managers of the factories that employed Bruce's father lived. The factories are gone now as are many of the working class folk who long sold their homes to the high-salaried NY commuters that continue to flood into this section of Monmouth County.

"Are we walking up the right driveway", my wife asked me. "I don't think so", I told her. I had even more doubts after I turned the corner into the back yard and saw a smattering of people in what appeared to be a small family barbeque. There were parents in their 40s and several kids between the ages of 8 and 12. Looking lost, we stood there for a moment wondering what to do when Mark's wife Elaine rescued us. A very gracious host, she introduced herself, took our names and told me to drop off the food in the kitchen.

Afterwards we settled into some plastic chair scattered throughout the back lawn and chatted with some of the audience. We were definitely in the right place, though the casualness of the whole event seemed comfortable, yet odd. Where are the security teams I witnessed a few weeks earlier when I caught the Guster concert at the PNC center? I remember one girl at that concert who climbed up on the stage to dance in front of the audience, only to have a large security guard effortlessly swoop her up and whisk her side stage where - in an organized and rehearsed maneuver - her passed he on to a waiting female guard who escorted our teenager off the stage and out of the complex.

When Pat DiNizio arrived moments later he just grabbed a beer, a chair, and a conversation. The co-star of tonight's event was approachable, personable and that curious sense that I was really at Uncle Joe's family BBQ came over me again. Jim Babjak arrived shortly thereafter with his second oldest son in a 10-year old Volvo wagon. No pretentious rock stars here, just family men and neighbors.

After a very impressive opening act Mark took portraits of his guests that evening and the lawn minions were directed into the studio. There were about 60 of us, tightly seated in the small garage. You can't get more intimate than this. We took seats in the third row, only ten or so feet from artists who still play the occasional arena show. In the first row were four of the neighborhood kids, who I suspect Mark and Elaine regularly give free entrance to. I immediately pictured in my mind how lucky I would have been if in my childhood I had a neighbors who introduced me to live performances of great 60's soul artists or jazz musicians. I wouldn't be surprised if these kids never heard of any of these artists before they saw them live, though artists like the Smithereens are still in the regular radio rotation of some stations. The Smithereens had several top 10 hits, but all were before any these kids were born. I suspect many will appreciate these evenings more when they get older than they do now.

Just prior to the show my wife briefly spoke with Pat when he realized he hadn't created a song list yet. The two men just got off a plane that morning from a performance out west and Pat had, to my surprise, another living room concert later that evening in Bergenfield, an hour or so away in North Jersey. "Maybe, I'll just take requests" Pat said as he politely excused himself.

For most of the night that's what he did - to Jim's chagrin. They both had fun that night on the tight little stage and it was infectious. After Pat called out the first few songs the audience began shouting out favorite tunes, sparking Pat to immediately launch into the song. Unfortunately for Jim, some of the songs he hadn't played in years and it was fun to watch him roll with the punches as tried to remember his parts. "No more requests" shouted Jim with a big smile of his face as the audience called out the most obscure titles in the Smithereens songbook (To help Jim out I called out White Castle Blues, a tune he wrote and sang in concert for years. It turns out he hadn't done that one in a while either).

Maybe this all sounds sloppy to the average person, but it is what I find it to be one of the best element of the Costanzo's shows. The audience here is not getting a stamped, cookie cutter performance for their money. Instead they are interacting with the performers in a live, breathing atmosphere where these entertainers let their hair down in the name of fun. I had fun as did everyone else, including the tweens in the front row who probably view Snoop Dogg as an oldies performer.

After the show we all went out to the kitchen to grab food and eat. Pat stayed for a quick bite, but then ran off to his next show for which he was already late to. The guy already had a very long day, but he was off to another job. Meanwhile, I struck up a short conversation on the food line with Jim. After I got my food I joined my wife and brother in the backyard. When Jim came outside he joined us and for the next hour or so we just chatted. It turns out that Jim now lives in the town me and my brother grew up in and we spoke about the changes in the area length. In his pre-Smithereens days Jim owned a record store two blocks from my alma mater Rutgers, which I occasionally shopped at, so we talked about that. Jim told us about meeting his wife and proudly talked about his oldest son, the college-bound math whiz, who scored a near perfect SAT score in the math section.

Value is a subject I speak to frequently on MP3 Newswire. Value is what we all look for when we spend our hard earned cash and that goes for music as well as anything else. For me, I received more value from this simple, unpretentious night than what $75 a ticket brought me at the Bruce Springsteen concert I attended a few years ago. $75 plus $10 parking bought me the cheap seats at a great Giant stadium concert where the sound was good, but where I spent most of the night watching it from a large TV screen. The band was that far away. Value also came from the knowledge that all the money collected by the Costanzo's go to the artists. As we started to leave we watched Jim pop open the back of the Volvo and make an extra buck selling Smithereen t-shirts and $10 Smithereen CDs. I bought his solo CD. There was value for me even in the fact my money went directly into Jim's hands and not some middle man's.

It was a wonderful evening for everyone. A night where heroes became humans, rock stars became fathers and the performer complements your wife's cooking. Really, is there any reason for me to buy nose-bleed seats for an impersonal arena concert again?

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