For their final appearance in Nashville, Mr. Big leaned into a two-hour set of nearly two dozen songs filled with hits, rockers, solos, plus a handful of covers paying tribute to a wide range of influences.
The Who played a big part in the hour-long opening set of the Smithereens, during which, at one point, the core band of guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist Severo Jornacion, went all in on a rousing, rambunctious take of “Overture” from Tommy.
Like most of the material they played with Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms on lead vocals (replacing lead singer Pat DiNizio, who died in 2017), the Smithereens created a specter of drifting back to a time when everything was fun and rosy without a care in the world. Plums from their songbook included “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” “Groovy Tuesday,” “Blood and Roses” and “A Girl Like You.” To top it all off, famed 70s model and singer Bebe Buell popped up for a rendition of “Top Of The Pops.” Which just goes to show you never know who’s waiting in the wings to step onto the Mother Church stage.
In a town like Nashville, the match-up of Mr. Big and the Smithereens practically makes sense. The reaction from what you would presume to be a hard rockin’ crowd with refractory taste buds was surprisingly positive and supportive. For their first time at the Ryman, the Smithereens gave a stupendous performance, bubbling over with catchy pop rock flavorings laced with a tightly knit chemistry between the players.
After a 30-minute change-over, Mr. Big came out a-blazing with their earliest hit, “Addicted To That Rush.” Bassist Billy Sheehan kept the main riff spinning, while singer Eric Martin and guitarist Paul Gilbert latched on in a tag-team call-and-response build. Once the song exploded, Gilbert and Sheehan swapped licks like battering rams and set sail for Crescendo Island.
With the tone established, it was Lean Into It that would set course for much of the night. In conjunction with The Big Finish theme around this tour being the last for Mr. Big, the entire Lean Into It is the featured centerpiece. The band’s second album is their best seller, spawning two hit singles — chart-topper “To Be With You” and “Just Take My Heart,” which snuck inside of the Top 20.
Anyone expecting an album like Lean Into It to be loaded up with love songs gets a big surprise from the get-go, as “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)” lifts off, its slap-in the-face riff and Martin’s kick-in-the-pants lyric reeling you in. At the Ryman, once the electric drills came out for the song’s solo break, everyone surged forward for a peak. You never know what you can accomplish with just a couple of household appliances.
This is what makes Mr. Big such a special group. Martin brings the melodic flair to the fore, while Sheehan and Gilbert have their fingers on the pulse with musical chops to spare. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio, on board for his first and presumably last Mr. Big tour, fills in the rest, much in the spirit of original basher Pat Torpey. Coming from the progressive rock world as a member of Spock’s Beard, D’Virgilio’s dual role as drummer and backing vocalist willfully services the material without overstepping any imposed bounds. Which anyone could easily fall victim to given the dynamics within a band like Mr. Big.
It’s the full spread that made “Alive and Kickin’,” “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” and “Never Say Never” — after which Martin remarked that Lean Into It is a “long-ass album” — resonate with the house. Of course, everyone joined in on the “To Be With You” chorus, and the sing-along continued with a cozy stroll through Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.”
Both Sheehan and Gilbert powered through lengthy, jaw-dropping solos around “Colorado Bulldog.” It was a real treat to hear “Shy Boy,” a swift little rocker Sheehan originally wrote for his band Talas that was later re-recorded by David Lee Roth for his debut solo album, Eat Em And Smile. A nod to Humble Pie with a satisfying “30 Days In The Hole” was roundly supplemented by a mighty stab at the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
In between, as if to leverage their virtuosity with a bit of high-caliber humor, everyone switched instruments for a good-natured thrashing of “Good Lovin’.” Without a bass around his neck, Sheehan worked the stage like any good, imposing frontman. D’Virgilio power-chorded his way through the verses, Marin held steady on bass, and Gilbert was undeniably impressive behind the drum kit.
Taking their final bows two hours after they began, Mr. Big more than lived up to the Ryman’s reputation as a showcase for world-class music. At press time, The Big Finish tour is just getting underway, with shows scheduled well into summer throughout the States, Europe, and South America. Living, breathing bands of Mr. Big’s pedigree are fewer and farther between these days. Best to catch the real deal before the tributes and AI avatars take over. Then maybe Mr. Big will reunite to help restore the humanity in music.