"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
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.