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Saturday, 17 March 2012 10:01

Concert review: The Smoking Popes (with Roundheels) burn through the Firebird, Thursday, March 15

Concert review: The Smoking Popes (with Roundheels) burn through the Firebird, Thursday, March 15 facebook.com/smokingpopes / Bill Thomas
Written by Annah Bender
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Stalwart punk anthems for the outwardly tattooed but emotionally fragile: the Smoking Popes, unlikely love balladeers and polite band of brothers, played to a couple dozen enthralled fans at the Firebird on Thursday night.

Supporting act Roundheels opened with a metal-licious set featuring thermonuclear drums and a fair bit of antics by the lead singer, who kept leaving the stage to get more beer and ended up ripping his jeans from crotch to knee during a particularly energetic scissor kick. It was an interesting contrast to the laidback stage presence of the Smoking Popes -- brothers Caterer (Josh, Eli and Matt) and their drummer Neil Hennessy -- who shuffled onstage without ripping or drinking anything and dove headfirst into "Rubella."

You would never know it from Josh Caterer's unruffled croon, backed by head-bouncing power chords, that most of his songs have to do with either the tentative beginnings of a crush or the deflation of a crush spurned. In between there are gems like "Punk Band," which pair upbeat, bouncy drums with lyrics that indicate the life of a rock star ain't all it's cracked up to be -- resonating with punk bandmates and non-musicians alike who have ever wondered, uncomfortably twisted into a pretzel on a friend's couch, "Is this really what I should be doing with my time?"

The Smoking Popes helped define a sound (pop-punk) and a place (Chicago, 1990s) that inspired countless others -- Jimmy Eat World, Jawbreaker, Alkaline Trio, the Descendants -- to reinforce their horned-rim glasses with masking tape and play vigorous tearjerkers that, depending on the mood, could incite marriage proposals and/or angry bottle-throwing in the crowd.

This drizzly Thursday evening was a one-two punch of back-to-back, earnest and snark-free anthems (dedicated at various points, apparently without irony, to both Ron Paul and Ralph Nader) that left us with restless legs and, at least in my case, a powerful urge to relocate my old Punk Planet collection to see if I could find an interview with one or more of the Caterers.

Kicking things off with material from their latest release, the concept album "This Is Only A Test," the Popes brandished guitars and stomped as hard as their Chuck Taylors would allow, speeding through each three-minute tune without pausing for so much as a "thank you ma'am." Somewhat incredulously, there was a short acoustic set ("Megan"), a showcase of the much-discussed vocal stylings of Caterer the Lead Singer. I've pinpointed his technique: a mash-up of Morrissey and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.

An encore provided us with crowd-pleasers like "Need You Around," which you may remember from the "Clueless" soundtrack if you were ever a teenage girl in the '90s. It's music made for a mixtape but it sounds even better live, bobbing your head along with the person who will break your heart later.

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