Live: Smoking Popes at the Middle East

The recently reunited Smoking Popes absolutely, uh, smoked last night downstairs at the Middle East at their first show in town in “like eight years,” according to frontman Josh Caterer. As one of the best and most under-appreciated power pop bands of the ’90s, Caterer, his brothers — guitarist Eli and bassist Matt — and drummer Mike Felumlee deftly married big power chords and big hooks with Josh’s distinctive Kermit-the-Frog-meets-Morrissey croon. The band broke up at the end of 1998 but got back together last November for a show in their hometown of Chicago that was filmed and released as a CD/DVD, At Metro (Victory), last month.

They’re currently in the midst of a full-scale reunion tour, and at the Middle East, they sounded as though they’d never stopped playing together. Josh and Eli opened the set with a mesmerizing version of “Pure Imagination,” the Willy Wonka song that appeared on the Popes’ brilliant 1997 album Destination Failure. Afterwards, they were joined by their brother Matt and drummer Ryan Chavez and switched into full rock mode, the band’s brawn and Josh’s graceful voice arrestingly juxtaposed. Other highlights included a rousing version of “I Know You Love Me” and a new song that is apparently going to appear on a new full length (!) and sounded like vintage Popes — rhythmically and melodically catchy and anthemic without being histrionic. The night’s most poignant moment came when the audience sang along to “You Spoke to Me,” Josh’s ode to a band that changed his life: “I drove all the way from Carpentersville just to see you here tonight and it was worth it . . . I’m just glad I got to see you.”

-- Will Spitz

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