Popes make Common Grounds their own Vatican

The Smoking Popes.

Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 9:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 9:34 a.m.

It’s been 8 long years since the Smoking Popes have graced a stage here in Gainesville. Thursday evening was sweet penance for Popes fans as the Chicago band returned to town at Common Grounds with the band Criteria. After last performing at the Center for the Performing Arts while opening for Morrissey, the Smoking Popes reunited late last year with a new drummer and decided to launch a North American tour, now in its second leg.

Emo-heavy Criteria, hailing from Omaha, opened the show with a mix of heavy guitar fury and sharp, penetrating vocals courtesy of mustachioed frontman Stephen Pedersen, a former guitarist in the band Cursive. The band’s sound wavered between that of the metal-tempered tunes of Fugazi and the more pop-friendly fare of Hot Hot Heat.

Despite avoiding a potential drunkard in the audience calling out for a Bright Eyes song upon announcing his hometown, Pedersen sarcastically encouraged the sedate crowd to “calm down” at one point between songs. The audience did eventually warm to Criteria though, as guitarist Aaron Druery flailed away on his huge rockwell-style axe. Drummer Mike Sweeney also pounded away on his silvery kit while balding, bearded bassist AJ Mogis rounded out the solid rhythm section with impressive backing vocals, which included the new song “Prevent the World.”

An amplifier head used by both bands had a sign attached warning “hearing protection required.” While this was good advice, and more than one band and audience member sported earplugs, the Smoking Popes’ incredible, glorious noise exploded forth with nary a complaint. When not pissing off the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue with their name, the Smoking Popes bring the musical goods from all sides. The crowd closed in during their opening tune, “Let’s Hear It For Love.” The Caterer brothers (Josh on guitar and vocals, Eli on lead guitar, and Matt on bass), joined by Houston’s Ryan Chavez on drums, tore through a spirited set of punk pop goodness that included their most famous song, “Need You Around,” which was featured in the film Clueless.

“Thanks for staying up late to watch some guys from Chicago play music,” the striped-tied Josh announced early in the set. Little did he know that many start their weekends in this college town on a Thursday.

Others in the crowd were a bit more than awake. Matt Caterer often had to fight back the urge to laugh on more than a few occasions, namely because of a black polo shirted fan who overzealously switched off between pogoing in front of Matt’s monitor and skanking his way along the lip of the stage. The jovial bassist did get back somewhat later on in the set when he played his instrument right over the head of Mr. Pogo’s semi-conscious, disinterested girlfriend during the encore.

The amazing thing about the Smoking Popes is their catchy melodies. These are songs you’ll swear you’ve heard dozens of times before even though many of them were newly written. Josh’s vocals were well centered in the pop vein as song after song was performed for their appreciative fans. Although the band wore its rich Chicago heritage on their sleeves at times (or at least on Matt’s shirt, which advertised legendary Windy City radio station The Loop), they are distinctly their own animal. Despite their indie roots, they’re really more Cheap Trick than Urge Overkill.

Josh took the stage alone near the end of the set with a solo version of “Pretty Pathetic.” The band joined them at the end while he encouraged the crowd to do the very “indie” thing of snapping their fingers as he tore into a verse from the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese.”

During the Popes’ set of poppy fun, Josh announced that Gainesville may have more of them to look forward to as the band plan to release a CD of new material and come touring our way once again. Hopefully many of you will not make the mistake of missing them twice.

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