Daily Archives: December 21, 2009

Blast From The Past: The Smoking Popes

I used to have mixed emotions about bands getting back together after breaking up and going their separate ways. The optimist in me always thought that there might be some more gold in that mine, and perhaps great music would resume after the members had a chance to step away. The purist in me would dread a reputation being ruined, sweet voices now croaking, tight ensembles now a wee bit sloppy.

But really – who am I to be the arbiter of such things? So my new position is bring it on – if you have the guts to do it, I have the guts to listen –  and let the chips fall where they may. After all, it’s your reputation, not mine, at stake.

But the sheer numbers of bands doing this is staggering – it might be easier to count the ones who don’t! So while The Smoking Popes were certainly popular enough in their first incarnation, I’m not certain whether many outside of Chicago were aware of their second wind in the latter half of this decade. Somehow it eluded me until a month ago – I thought when they dissolved they were done forever. I’m going to take a dive in those waters soon.

But in the meantime, here’s a review of their live album from almost a decade ago, as it originally ran in PopMatters. It will be interesting to play their 2006 album At Metro and compare.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” You’re right, Joni. The Smoking Popes are no more, but this live recording proves that they packed a hell of a wallop when they were. Familiar to most for the radio hit “Need You Around” and Josh Caterer‘s Morrissey-like lead vocals, the Chicago quartet lit stages on fire for a decade. This set, from their final performance at the Metro, truly captures their power and energy as they rip through song after song with nary a breather.

Crooning like The Moz is one thing, but contrasting a raging punk-pop beat against it made the Popes truly unique. With brothers Matt and Eli (bass and guitar, respectively) and drummer Mike Fellumlee backing his voice and guitar, songs like “No More Smiles,” “Writing A Letter” and “Under The Blanket” kick ass, while the slower tempo songs (“Stars”) are just as powerful in their restraint. Short instrumentals “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Surf” are lethal, the latter segueing into a “You Really Got Me” riff before launching into “Before I’m Gone.” Josh’s lyrics bear listening to as well; he’s sometimes wordy but is painfully honest and open. “Pretty Pathetic” is amazing.

The band broke up after Josh, the main songwriter, felt his religious calling was incompatible with being in a band (especially one with a name like Smoking Popes, I imagine). The intro to the last track on Live (“I Know You Love Me”) not only makes his vision abundantly clear but adds another dimension to a song you may have been touched by in a completely different way.

Check out some clips on Amazon.

Smoking Popes website – new album in 2010!


R.I.P. James Gurley


Filed under Features and Interviews, Music, Reviews