Smoking Popes brought a nostalgic and raucous stage show to the Riot Room on Saturday, rounding out a weekend filled to the brim with spectacular shows from nationally touring groups. In a long, full set that included several classics and a peppering of new tracks from their recently released concept album, This Is Only a Test, the Popes gave longtime fans a chance to rock out with their arms in the air with lyrics flowing effortlessly from their mouths. It certainly proved that the Popes, who've been crafting pop-punk flair since 1991, still have what it takes.
Up first were local atmospheric rock group Brainbow, a sharply crafted four-piece that took to the stage in matching outfits of black pants, black button-down shirts, and black-and-gray polka-dotted ties. Brainbow's music, which is absent any vocal parts, relies heavily on the droning of repetitious but complicated bass lines and a melodic keyboard part to hold the sound, which is throbbing and heavy. I could tell they were avid Smoking Popes' fans themselves; as bassist Bobby Bayer said at one point into the microphone, "I'm a little bit nervous." It might have been one of the largest audiences Brainbow has played for, but had he never mentioned it, I don't think I would have noticed.
Taking the stage next was local punk-rock outfit Action Figure
, another quartet that brought high energy, bright lights, and loud rock to the Riot Room stage. In fact, the Action Figure light show was so intense, it was almost seizure-inducing: pulsating strobes that flashed between a series of multiple colors, almost on-beat with their racing, fast-paced brand of punk-influenced rock and roll. By this time in the night, the Riot Room was filling up considerably, but, due to the beautiful weather and the Riot Room patio's smoking throngs (as well as the commencing of an outdoor DJ set from Sonic Spectrum's Robert Moore), the crowd had dispersed a bit throughout the space. The Action Figure set seemed fairly straightforward and short but was a great source of energy to pump the crowd up in anticipation for the Smoking Popes.
When the Popes came to the stage, they did so with the calmness and ease of veteran punk rockers. They wore casual smiles on their faces, took long looks out into the crowd, said hello, and began their set with "Rubella," a hit off their second studio album, 1995's Born to Quit
. A large group of people had pushed to the front of the stage, and immediately began the bouncing up and down, singing along. One friend I caught up with spoke of having seen the Popes on tour with Morrissey, as well as on the Green Day Dookie
tour. That type of reminiscing went on all night from the memories of longtime fans.
One particular highlight was watching all the dudes in the audience sing along to "Just Broke Up," another track off Born to Quit
that pounds out lyrics like She started holding on too tight / So I let her go tonight / I've got no regrets at all
. It was pretty obvious that several people in the audience played this song at high volume in their teen years after having broken up with a girlfriend. The Popes transitioned this song straight into "Let's Hear It for Love," one of their most pop-influenced punk songs off 1997's Destination Failure
that had nearly everybody jumping up and down. The air in the room was pretty sweaty and thick by now, but most people didn't seem to notice at all.
They slowed down the night with a couple of acoustic songs from frontman crooner Josh Caterer, including "College," a track off their latest album that speaks of the uncertainty of the future form the vantage point of a high school boy (also, the missing number 19 from the set list, posted below). Though it seems obvious enough that the Popes would fashion a high school concept album, the new songs didn't seem to ring out with quite as much punk-popped flair as their older material.
After "College" was over, Josh leaned into the mic and offered up "Enough of that. Let's rock out." And rock out they did for the remainder of their set, which included a three-song encore for a hefty total of a 21-song set. As the show ended and people poured out onto the patio for some much needed fresh air, the crowd was a-buzz with approving comments and sighs of exhaustion. Though the Popes' new material may not be quite up to snuff, their classics seem to hold their grit and ring just as true today for avid fans as they did over 10 years ago. It was certainly a show that fans will be adding to the annals of punk-rock shows that have shaped who these music lovers are over the years. Overheard in the crowd
(in between the main set and the encore, on the patio): "They didn't play my favorite song, 'Pretty Pathetic'!" No worries -- I had the set list, and noticed it was slated as the first song of the encore and encouraged her to hurry back inside. She later thanked me.Critic's Notebook
: I noticed that a large part of the group pushing against the front of the stage was composed of various local musicians. It seemed pretty clear that the Smoking Popes have influenced some of our own beloved local talent. Set list
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