By Mark Guarino
Don’t let the live vibe fool you—The Hideout Sessions features no cheering, no clapping, and no cries for “Freebird.” Josh Caterer, lead singer of the Smoking Popes for 30 years, recorded this new collection of songs and covers pandemic style last October: he played to no one, just cameras that livestreamed the show from the Hideout to virtual fans. Nevertheless, Caterer suited up with his new band as if they were playing a grand ballroom on a Saturday night. That attention to detail is reflected in the sharply executed playing and blazing bursts of energy that carry the momentum of this ten-song set. Drummer John Perrin (NRBQ) and bassist John San Juan (Hushdrops) round out the power trio, and together these precision players reinvent several pop standards, some from nearly a century ago, according to their own vision. “My Funny Valentine” becomes heavy with menace, especially with Caterer’s ecstatic guitar soloing and Perrin flipping through time signatures with every fill. The band explore a wide range of dynamics in these doom-laden love songs: on “I Only Have Eyes for You,” Caterer launches into a free-form solo that scales the mountaintop, and the band transforms the Music Man ballad “Goodnight, My Someone” into speedy power pop. One of the distinctive characteristics of Caterer’s sound has always been the contrast between his choirboy vocals and the crunch of his band, and the allure of that approach has never been stronger—it reveals a direct lineage connecting the deep yearning in his songs to the songbook writers of the past. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written by Scottish folk singer Ewan MacColl and popularized by Roberta Flack, could be a lost Popes number for how it amplifies the simplicity of its heartache. Popes favorites “Someday I’ll Smile Again” and “Megan” are here to please the fan base; “Writing a Letter” gets a slowed-down update that swings with a Latin beat, topped with a trumpet solo from Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering. Right now there’s no word whether this excellent band will play to people, not just cameras, once music venues reopen. Here’s hoping.