Smoking Popes, Roll The Tanks and Almost People, Chapel Hill, NC, October 11, 2012

Smoking Popes, Roll The Tanks and Almost People – Thursday, October 11 at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, NC
 By Michael Wood
Smoking Popes are one of those bands that flirted with major label success in the ’90s, but like most punk bands in the ’90s, could not maintain a relationship with the majors. Not everyone can be as lucky as Green Day or Rancid. But their flirtation with success landed them tours with artists like Morrissey, Jimmy Eats World, Jawbreaker, Tripping Daisy, and also helped them build a small but devoted fan base. When singer/songwriter Josh Caterer turned to God in the early 2ks, he lost interest in Smoking Popes, and they took a long hiatus. They made a welcome return in 2007, their first show being sold out in 36 minutes, and then a successful tour with Bayside.
When I saw that Smoking Popes would be coming to Chapel Hill, I felt a bit nostalgic. I saw them once with Tripping Daisy in 1994, and once with Morrissey in ’95. I have been a fan for years. But unlike some other bands I’d listened to in the ’90s, I feel the Popes had stood the test of time, and was excited to see them, not just for nostalgia.
I arrived to the sparsely attended show, so far seeing about 15 or so people, and the opener, Almost People, from Durham, was playing. They play pop punk with a little bit of emo tendencies. Some of the more pop oriented songs reminded me of Plow United while the darker songs landed somewhere between Alkaline Trio and Face to Face. Not bad. The bass player’s dirty tone definitely kept them from falling too far into pop punk mediocrity and added some balls to their sound. From the comments of the guitarist, they are usually heavy drinkers, but tonight they were able to stay somewhat sober.
The second band, and Smoking Popes tour mates, was Roll The Tanks. RTT features the ex singer/guitarist of Piebald and the ex-drummer of Mighty Mighty Bosstones. While sounding nothing like the Bosstones (thankfully) they did have some similarities to Piebald, at least their later material. RTS were good, catchy power pop for the most part with nods toward Elvis Costello and The Clash. At one point, the drummer said to his band mates, “they got Jager here? I wanna smash somethin’.” Way to perpetuate a Boston-meathead stereotype, dude.
Up next was The Smoking Popes, and by this time there was about 25 people in the bar. The first thing I noticed was Caterers look. He has always had short hair. But now he is completely bald, has glasses, and a goatee. He actually fits the look of a Christian rocker! Oh no. But, alas, there was no blatant Christian rocking, thankfully. They played Born To Quit start to finish, which was awesome. At points it seemed as if there were added solos, and their presence had gone from a modest one that I remembered in the past to them jumping all over stage. Despite that odd transition, it was nice to see the songs played again, and there was still a sense of desperation and honesty, that sometimes can fade over the years with veteran bands.
After playing Born to Quit from start to finish, Carterer played a solo set of Popes songs like “Megan,” “First Time,” and then on “Pretty Pathetic” he did the first half alone then the full band came back to stage and finished the song, which made the song even more epic then it already was, and had the audience singing along to the lyric “I miss what we had! I need you so badly!” They finished the show with “I know you love me.” When they left stage, I realized they didn’t play one of their best tunes, “Let’s here it for love,” then quickly realized that they weren’t done. They came back for an encore and played their version of the classic “You’ll never walk alone,” then ended the night with “Let’s hear it for love” which is the quintessential classic Smoking Popes song, melodic pop punk with Caterer’s Rat Pack-esqie croon and heart aching cynicism. Also a perfect song to end the night with.