Smoking Popes' reunion show may relight a fire


November 14, 2005


"As crazy as it sounds / I need you around," Josh Caterer sang in one of a dozen indelible pop-punk choruses.

On Friday night at Metro, the Smoking Popes' leader clearly was expressing the feelings of a sold-out crowd of rabidly devoted Chicago fans thrilled to cheer the return of one of the best bands this city produced in the '90s.

The Smoking Popes may top the list of Chicago's finest "shoulda been contenders." Though they produced two undeniable classics for Capitol Records -- 1994's "Born to Quit" and 1997's "Destination Failure" -- they never succeeded in winning the sizable national audience and gold or better record sales they so richly deserved. And they broke up well before their time, the result of a troubled Caterer pulling the plug on the group after he was born again and rid his life of his errant rocker ways.

Now the quartet is back, and as so often happens with underground bands that called it a day just when they were on the cusp of success, their popularity only seems to have increased during their near decadelong absence.

Throughout the course of a high-energy hourlong set plus encores, fans sang along with every word of Caterer's melancholy expressions of lovelorn loneliness and troubled soul-searching, even as they joyfully pogoed in place, transported by the infectious melodies and unrelenting rhythms.

The three Caterer brothers -- Josh on guitar and lead vocals (and still the Mel Torme of the punk scene), Eli on ever-impressive and fiery lead guitar and Matt on bass -- plus new drummer Rob Kellenberger hardly gave listeners a chance to catch their breath as they tore from one unforgettable tune into another: "Writing a Letter," "Rubella," "Just Broke Up," "Need You Around," "No More Smiles," "I Know You Love Me," "You Spoke to Me."

There was nothing new here, and even the covers -- the snatches of the MC5's "Ramblin' Rose" that opened and closed the set and the "Is it camp or is it sincere?" version of the Willy Wonka anthem "Pure Imagination" -- were staples back in the day. But the Popes played them with the energy and vitality they displayed in the middle of their career, circa 1996.

This was a wise move. It would be easy to rewrite history now, but the fact remains that the band had lost its way artistically toward the end of its first run, even as Josh Caterer was finding his path in life. The Popes were never as strong when Josh put down his guitar and just sang, and their attempts to incorporate lounge standards were a serious misstep, as evidenced by the posthumous release "The Party's Over."

There wouldn't be much reason to celebrate the return of those Smoking Popes, but the version of the band that preceded that last incarnation remains unbeatable, with a future as promising as it was before they quit.

The key word there is "future."

No matter how great or how much it was missed, any band only gets one pass at a nostalgic reunion gig, and the Popes just got theirs. Then the question has to be posed: What have you got for us tomorrow?

So enjoy the show of love greeting your return, fellas. Now it's time to start moving forward.

Opening the show -- which was part of Flowerbooking's 15th anniversary celebration and a benefit for the P.L.A.Y. charity, fostering arts education for underprivileged kids -- was Chicago's Bella Lea, the angular but tuneful art punk/twisted pop quartet fronted by magnetic singer, guitarist and keyboardist Maura Davis. Its dynamic and varied set justified the growing buzz, which has the group on the verge of signing a major-label deal as it prepares to record its debut album.