Smoking Popes light up the Red Palace

Smoking Popes, Chicago's influential indie rock band perform at DC's Red Palace.

WASHINGTON, November, 13, 2012 —Perception can have a strange effect on a band. The three major factors determining how a band is perceived are the fans, the media, and the band itself.  Sometimes these three factors coalesce into one coherent voice shouting a unified opinion to anyone willing to listen. This provides a given band with a coherent, readily identifiable image.  Oftentimes, however, a disconnect between these three opinion-making factions forces a band to struggle to find a consensus identity. 

This is the kind of predicament Smoking Popes currently find themselves in. As a band, they’re the precursor to a number the relatively well-known Chicago bands like Alkaline Trio and the Lawrence Arms, and they have influenced these bands a great deal. But you can’t feel this effect in their stage performance, nor is it one the band itself feels all that strongly. Yet it was easy to see these connections in their live set during their recent appearance at the Red Palace.

The premise for this show was to give Smoking Popes an opportunity to play their 1995 album Born to Quit in its entirety from beginning to end. For those familiar with Smoking Popes, this is their most highly regarded album and the one album they really built their reputation on. The poignancy of Smoking Popes’ sound is just as clear in a live setting as it is in their recorded material.

There were several things that made this album interesting over fifteen years ago—an impact that remains important to many listeners today. The first thing isn’t necessarily noticeable at first glance, but becomes rather pronounced once you know the band’s history just a little bit. In short, the band is made up of three brothers, Josh, Matt, and Eli Caterer with several drummers filling in for the brothers along the way. (Their current drummer is Chicago mainstay and Lawrence Arms drummer Neil Hennessey.)

Smoking Popes have always played a style of rock that has been associated with both punk and ego, but labeling them as such wouldn’t be entirely accurate. One of the things that always defined their sound is how straight ahead and tight it is from start to finish. A lot of bands can develop the kind of chemistry necessary to play the way the Popes do, especially for as long as the Popes have been together. Still the Popes are just as tight and on top of things now as they were back in the day, playing everything from Born to Quit in exactly the way the originals sound on the album. This speaks volumes for how close and in sync the three brothers have remained after all these years.

The other aspect of the Popes’ sound, the one that’s more noticeable and what arguably got them attention in the first place, is the distinctive quality of Josh Caterer’s voice. Josh’s voice is very much like that of a crooner, wavering and breaking at odd points during each song while never doing damage to the harmony. It’s a voice that is totally unique in the world of punk/emo/indie rock, and for lack of a better term, it gives the Popes their edge. What’s even more surprising is that his voice seems even stronger and more distinctive live, and pushes each song in the band’s set to a different level.

Josh Caterer will say that the Popes as a whole, or at least the three brothers who have been with the band from the beginning, have improved significantly since those early days in the ‘90s. But that just underlines the simple honesty of the band’s sound. When performing the music from a classic album live, it’s important to capture the spirit of the album as well as the sound on a fundamental level, and that’s just what the Popes did during their appearance here.

The Popes don’t necessarily view themselves as influential or even that important in the grand scheme of music. They’re just three brothers (and Hennessey) who enjoy playing rock music in front of an audience. It’s that kind of attitude, though, that makes them such an engaging band to see live. It’s also why they’ve garnered such respect among their peers, fans, and critics alike, even if they don’t necessarily grasp it.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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