Last Friday's benefit show at Metro in Chicago not only marked part of a week-long 15 year anniversary celebration for stalwart indie concert bookers Flowerbooking, it also marked the return to the stage of one of THE BEST bands Chicago and the Midwest has ever produced after a nearly 7 year hiatus.
The Smoking Popes' reunion show at Metro sold out within a half-hour (quicker than even some more nationally known acts on the week-long bill), and was arguably the most anticipated of Flower 15's anniversary/benefit shows. Funds raised go to P.L.A.Y.-an organization that provides creative outlets for children and teens who come from abusive and violent environments.
Setting themselves apart from the burgeoning pop/punk pack of the early '90s, as well as their Chicago peers, the Smoking Popes crooning/swooning style and penchant for melancholy (well before "emo" became a household word), always singled out their sound as unique, and it still does to this day. Actually though, to sum up their style as pop punk always seems a lazy disservice and implies them to be part of a played-out genre, even if it wasn't back when the band started. Perhaps a more fitting comparison would be to the earlier power pop-rock of the '70s and/or '80s, but coupled with a romantic crooner at the front of the stage who wouldn't feel out of place in the 1940s. Vocally, Popes singer/songwriter Josh Caterer is earnest and yearning, but also like Andy Partridge from XTC melded with Morrissey. So it's not suprising the Mozz waxed lovingly about the band back in their heyday on LA radio before inviting them to become his tour mates!
Smoking Popes were certainly influential on their musical peers, not only during, but long after their short initial stay. Even now, Chicagoan Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy says, "After Naked Raygun, Chicago was The Smoking Popes. They were Alkaline Trio before Alkaline Trio; they were Fall Out Boy before Fall Out Boy. This band is one of the reasons that Fall Out Boy even exists."
Of course, it would be easy to lead this reunion news with analysis of how Smoking Popes leader Josh Caterer initially broke up the band upon finding conflict between his rock & roll and (at the time) new found Christianity. So let's get that out of the way right off the bat (more to the point, is it even important anymore? The band is BACK!). During the last seven years, Caterer married, raised a family and has been working with Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, IL. Not that music had totally taken a backseat. Caterer began to play for the congregation in his church and then brought his worship music to larger audiences in Chicago with his band Duvall (two releases on California punk label Asian Man fyi).
Cut to the present - No longer finding his rock and Christian pursuits diametrically opposed, Caterer has regrouped Smoking Popes with three of the four original members (brothers Eli and Matt Caterer) and has picked up where the band essentially "left off" back in '98 (fleshed out with amazing drummer Rob Kellenberger, most recently of Duvall and formerly of Chicago punk/ska kings Slapstick).
The irresistible 90-minute set was bookended by the Popes' instrumental cover of MC5's "Ramblin Rose" and ran the gambit from early 7" singles like "Writing A Letter" and "Brand New Hairstyle," to classic cuts from their Johann's Face and Capitol Records releases like "Off My Mind," "Gotta Know Right Now," "Rubella," "Mrs.You And Me," "Paul" and the radio hit, "Need You Around." The highlight of the night was perhaps the solo Josh Caterer singing "Pretty Pathetic" from the Popes' final proper release Destination Failure (Capitol), complete with swooning sing-along courtesy of the sold out house! Back for an encore and accompanied only by brother Eli on guitar, Caterer launched into the perennial live fave of old "Pure Imagination" (a cover from the classic '70s children's film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory) followed by arguably the greatest from the Popes' canon, "I Know You Love Me" (both also from Destination Failure). The former song always seemed best to sum up the magic of the Smoking Popes. The latter is the tune everyone assumed was an ode to a girlfriend, but on the night of their final performance in '98, was announced by Caterer to be about his relationship with Jesus.
All in attendance were truly rewarded. A quick scan of the crowd revealed age groups spanning from teens and young adults who never had the opportunity to see the band live "back in the day" to geezers like me who have been waiting for The Smoking Popes triumphant ressurection ever since they split up all those years ago.
Footage was shot that night for a possible DVD release and with a fully fledged reunion on the horizon, possible touring and the release of new material next year, this is truly a time for rejoicing. I just wonder what label is gonna be lucky enough to snatch them up?!
photos courtesy of www.smokingpopes.net
Source: Chris Stowers (on loan from Hard Boiled, Inc.)