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Smoking Popes Live

Reviewed by Ed Parker

The Smoking Popes were just another good band in the past several years who didn't receive of the attention from the public they deserved. Mostly they were a local band in Chicago. They were not part of any scene or genre; in fact I heard them described as everything from punk to emo to neo-lounge.

Most of this confusion stems from lead singer Josh Caterer, whose voice is a combination of Geddy Lee and Mel Torme, contradicts with the rest of the band which plays fast and loud. After the band formed in 1990, they put out several indie EPs and two albums. Soon support from Morrissey and Green Day landed them a major label deal with Capitol, which re-released their album Born To Quit. Capitol was not able to adequately promote the Smoking Popes' music and released them after their 1997 album Destination Failure. The Smoking Popes have since formed their own label, which has released an EP collection, this live concert, and will release an upcoming covers collection. The band was dissolved at the end of last year and this album is a recording of their last concert.

This live set is a good overview of the band's career, but it's probably not the best starting point for new fans. All of the Smoking Popes' best songs are here and the crowd is enthusiastic. The Popes had a loyal fanbase who can be heard in the audience singing along and shouting out the name of the song they would like to here, which the band would then play. The track list consists of 22 songs, including an unreleased cover of traditional country classic "Ramblin Rose." Two versions of this song appear on the album, the first of which is an instrumental which starts off the album. As said before, Josh Caterer has a great voice and the juxtaposition between him and the band is best on songs such as "Need You Around" and "Before I'm Gone."

Most of the Smoking Popes' songs are about relationships. Their love songs range from straight-forward mush songs ("Stars) to the unrequited kind ("Not That Kind of Girlfriend") to the obsessive crush ("Gotta Know Right Now"). In fact the Popes' last album Destination Failure was in effect about a relationship from first sight ("Star Struck One") to breakup ("Pretty Pathetic") with both songs also appearing on this album. Because Josh has a better singing ability than most punk groups, this allows them to venture into the area if slower ballad-type songs like "Stars" and "Double-Fisted Love"

This album, like most live albums, is not perfect, but it offers a nice retrospective of a greatly under-appreciated band, from their early garage-punk songs ("Brand New Hairstyle") to fan favorites (mine are "Gotta Know Right Now" and "Writing A Letter"). But it also contains the reason the band broke up. The last track on the album is a lovely acoustic version of "I Know You Love Me" and before it starts, Josh Caterer says, "This is my favorite Smoking Popes song because it is about my relationship with Jesus." So maybe the story of the Smoking Popes does not have such a sad ending after all. The band was not crushed by a giant media corporation, they split amicably so that the lead singer could sing about God. I think that's much better than what has happened to many bands in the last few years. This album is a good start to your Smoking Popes collection or get their major-label debut, Born To Quit.


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