By HAP MANSFIELD
I always liked the Smoking Popes, the Chicago-based band formed by the brothers Caterer (Matt, Eli and Josh) who cited some of their influences as The Replacements and Mel Torme and named themselves from their smoking habit and the movie, The Pope of Greenwich Village.
In the early to mid 1990’s, though, we had (unbeknownst at the time) an embarrassment of musical riches. The great bands were so plentiful and so omnipresent that the good bands often got lost in the shuffle. Just a list of the bands the Smoking Popes toured with will give you a sliver of a sample: Green Day, Elastica, Goo-Goo Dolls, Tripping Daisy, Jawbreaker, Triple Fast Action, Menthol, Jimmy Eat World, Morrissey. Good musicians, all.
The Smoking Popes got a big break with the inclusion of their song, “Need You Around” on the Alicia Silverstone, Emma-inspired movie, Clueless. It became a breakout hit in the UK. The Smoking Popes were poised for indie superstardom. They signed with Capitol Records.
And then, something happened. Josh Caterer, like Dylan, like Morris Day, like so many other musicians before him, had a Christian conversion. It’s hard to justify rock music as a living when there are hungry and suffering people in the world. (I don’t know how the rest of us justify our work; I just know that it’s particularly painful for rock musicians what with the reputation of the lifestyle, etc.) Capitol dropped them, paying off their contract. There was some flailing around for a while, and then the body of the Smoking Popes lay still.
Sure, there are good Christian rock bands, but it’s not easy to listen to five full cuts from CDs by Jars of Clay, Stryper or Creed. U2 is supposedly a Christian rock band, but if you believe that I have this bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in purchasing. No, it’s hard to keep the faith and keep the beat without beating people over the head with your message.
Flash to 2005. Amidst much excited speculation in November at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago, the Smoking Popes played a packed show and started recording again. Perhaps Josh Caterer figured out that music is not the most evil thing that men can do, and in fact, can raise the spirits of the listeners.
It’s true that most of their earlier songs were inoffensive, clever, heartfelt and tuneful (this alone makes them somewhat of an anathema) and the Smoking Popes now cheerfully cover them.
They are not a Christian rock band in particular. After all, they’re still calling themselves the Smoking Popes. There is no proselytizing or sermonizing. They are a just a really good band with a Christian guy doing the vocals. Of course, they are at Myspace and YouTube, so you can get a taste of what they do so well live.
Stay Down (Appeal), their new album, is a delicious slice of what the Smoking Popes are about. It is full of great melodies, wonderful lyrics and solid guitar work. They are now set on the path of happily making music and engaging the listener, the thing they set out to do to from the start. It’s amazing how the universe works that out.
You can see the Smoking Popes Tuesday (Aug. 12) at the Mohawk (912 Red River) in downtown Austin. They are more than worth the trip and the ten bucks. The show is for all ages, starting at 8:00 p.m.