What a wonderful thing the Smithereens accomplished at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Monday: They put high school back into rock 'n' roll.
The New Jersey band, which plays Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, was clipping along midway through a solid but hardly remarkable set when something happened, some Proustian leap of inspired memory that let a whole lost world become vivid and immediate. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what turned this show around, but it may have been something as simple as a whiff of an old, remembrance-provoking melody line.
What rock fan's memory wouldn't be warmed by the lovely harpsichord solo from "In My Life" by the Beatles? Smithereen Mike Mesaros retraced that solo winsomely on his bass during the ballad "Blue Period." Then, as he started the next song, Mesaros tossed off another recollection of mid-'60s Brit-pop bliss, the rumbling introduction to the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon." From that linkage of momentary remembrances of rock past arose a blazing, extended finish, a great leap backward in which the Smithereens, though playing '80s originals, transformed the Coach House into a high school auditorium, circa 1968-69.
What Michael J. Fox did in fantasy in "Back to the Future," the Smithereens did in the flesh. They jumped back in time, turning into the kids they must have been when they first fell in love with the rock 'n' roll of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who and the other '60s bands who so obviously inspire their music--maintaining all the while the mature, honed skills they have acquired in their decade together as a band. Nostalgic? Not a bit. Nostalgia is burnished and old. This was immediate and so bracingly young.