With all but a few rare exceptions, punk rock afternoon matinee shows have become a thing of the past in the metropolitan Boston area. This isn’t the time or place to really drill down to the core of that issue, but is both the time and place to point out than when they do happen, they can still be pretty magical. Due to a chain of scheduling miscues, last Saturday’s Smoking Popes headline show that was supposed to take place in the smaller, friendlier confines upstairs at Cambridge’s Middle East got bumped to the more cavernous space downstairs at the same venue…BUT Propagandhi was already booked to play the same space that night, so as a result, the Popes got bumped earlier. Like, way earlier. Like, “doors at noontime” earlier. The net result was a feel that had a bit of a throwback vibe for the slightly older-than-average crowd to revel in the ’90s pop punk goodness.
The Bigger Empty kicked off the show well before the early afternoon NFL games did the same. The five-piece hail from outside Chicago and are centered around frontman and songwriter Mike Felumlee, obviously pulling double-duty as drummer for the Popes. Together, the five-piece ripped through about a dozen up-tempo melodic rock tracks, most notably “Take My Heart With You,” which both appears on the band’s “Lakes & Oceans Volume 1 – Michigan” EP (La Escalera Records) and perhaps more recognizably as the introductory music to Felumlee’s Live From The Rock Room web series of live performances that he tapes from his basement. For what was basically a late morning show in their native time zone, Felumlee and keyboardist Amanda Moudry’s harmonies were tight, and the poppy energy provided by bassist Ruben Baird and new drummer Steve Lopez (who flew in from Texas and had no rehearsal time with the band) pushed the gas pedal beyond where it tops out on album format. Smoking Popes guitarist Eli Caterer filled in on guitar as well with very limited rehearsal time himself, so for a band that was hypothetically working through the kinks in real time on stage, there really weren’t very many kinks to work out. We know Mike keeps himself busy, but it’d be great to see The Bigger Empty on the touring circuit regularly!
Chris Farren served as main support, and played another perfect set. We last caught Farren a couple years ago when he was on the road with Dave Hause and Rocky Votolato, and to say that the Chris Farren live show has progressed in that amount of time is to completely understate the issue; his 2017 self is virtually a different species altogether. I’ve struggled with combining the right collection of words to encapsulate what it means to witness Farren live; there’s glitter and lights and lasers and mirror balls and pre-recorded samples and guitar loops and a gold microphone. I guess it’s like if a unicorn were playing pop-infused guitar rock on a rainbow. As an artist, it’s both inspiring and a little nerve-wracking to watch, but he had the still-filling-up crowd actually draw closer to the stage, many of them singing along at full volume.
Which brings us to the Popes. By the time the pop-punk icons took the stage, the crowd had filled out respectably. The brothers’ Caterer might not bring their show to the northeast all too often in later years, but when they to, they most definitely still bring it. Within the scene, Smoking Popes have long been considered in influential, important band, but I always got the sense that they just missed blowing up wider, for a variety of reasons most of which we won’t go into now, but one of which was that they were a pop punk band who was more than a pop punk band. “Need You Around” and “Rubella” and “Let’s Hear It For Love” had that midwestern punk rock vibe that made them at home among the likes of Alkaline Trio or Screeching Weasel but would just as easily have been at home on the alternative rock radio waves at the time. The music now sounds just as earnest and important as it did nearly a quarter-century ago. And so it was with eager anticipation that not only did the band announce they were working on new material AND hoped to have something out within the year BUT that they were also going to play one of those new tracks. It’s a song that serves as sociopolitical commentary that is, according to frontman Josh Caterer, based loosely on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and let the record show that this song seriously needs to see the light of day very, very, very soon. That one of the newer tracks in an afternoon of tight, high-energy pop punk sounds might have been the tightest and most inspiring of the occasion was an unexpected positive sign that we’re going to be following the sound for a lot longer.
Head below for our full photo gallery. (And seriously…there’s something to be said for getting home from a punk rock show at four in the afternoon. Let’s do this more often, yeah Boston?)