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A Crafty Act of Comfort and Devotion – “The Hideout Sessions” from Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer

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Wow DAMN this is cool. And deeply satisfying. And a testament to the enduring and nourishing good that live music is capable of bringing, to the soul, to the community, to the very air that sustains us. Few non-health related stories over the past year were more heartbreakingly common than those profiling artists and venues most dependent on live events. While certainly true across the board, the sad fact is that those most in need of performance spaces to practice their livelihood – community theater, local comedians, and nearly every musician regardless of age or genre – were hit the hardest when the pandemic swept across, and closed most of, the country. Not having, say, a symphony’s endowment or other dedicated forms of support nor, for the most part, any options (inadequate as they mostly were) akin to a takeout menu or some kind of ad hoc build-out onto the street, bars and clubs of all sizes were forced to take it on the chin and scramble for whatever government aid and/or GoFundMe contributions they could scrape together just to try and survive. The results, as well-reported, have been catastrophic, with hundreds if not thousands of establishments shuttering for good all across the nation. Which is why this live document from Smoking Popes main man Josh Caterer is such a blast, of fresh air, of fresh hope, of redemption. It is also, more to the point seeing as who we’re talking about here, with that smooth croon and his vintage-modern sensibilities, just a plain blast.

While, with absolute gratitude, we here at SEM join with the the millions of, well, to be honest, addicted music fans worldwide to honor and pay tribute to the countless musicians and DJs and promoter-producers who in an effort to keep both performance and our spirits alive these past 13 months have, via Twitch and YouTube and various other channels, done their best and bravely (most often, it should be said, with little if any monetary reward – let us pause for a moment of rapturous if still isolated applause), Caterer here on The Hideout Sessions, in a crafty act of comfort and devotion, takes it not further exactly but perhaps a bit deeper, an assessment that’ll especially ring true for anyone with even a drop of Chicago blood running through their heart (which is all of us, really, since nearly every thread within the tangled root of so-called popular music has wound at some point through the Windy City).

Dating back to Prohibition, The Hideout could reasonably stake a claim to being one of this country’s most beloved, revered, and culturally important live music holes-in-the wall. Thus did it make eminent sense that this would be the place where, on October 28, 2020, Caterer would assemble a new trio – the singer/guitarist joined by Hushdrops’ John San Juan on bass and drummer John Perrin from NRBQ – and take a lively, rather extraordinary setlist for a ticketed live-streamed virtual ride. Empty of course but for band and crew, The Hideout that night nonetheless hosted a show that in terms of punch and verve, not to mention historic significance, earned its place in the storied pantheon of such that have rattled the walls of West Wabansia Ave for the last hundred years.

Much of what lends weight and credence to that assertion is indeed that nickel-plated setlist. Rather than stick to the expected – which, y’know, would’ve been fine; the guy has, after all, amassed a fairly rich trove of his own songs over the years, and anyway there are four Popes tracks here, including the almost too-poignant “Someday I’ll Smile Again” that concludes the CD while intentionally left off the videocast  – the quietly unusual and, frankly, brilliant choice was made instead to take a few of the well-known standards that floated boats mid-(last) century and let this canny new ensemble carve them into their own unique gemstones, presenting them in ways seldom-if-ever imagined and certainly never heard. It’s a shameless but loving piece of rock’n’roll alchemy that can make a person perversely glad for the lockdown as it seems to have been an essential driver behind this album coming into existence. When we get renditions of “My Funny Valentine” that conceivably could be coming from an 8-track player on the way to a summer’s night at the drive-in circa ’73, of “Rags to Riches” which privileges a delicately rocked-out precision placing it somewhere on a continuum between the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies, of “I Only Have Eyes For You” where grunge finds itself on a blind date with the spirit of Neil Sedaka, of “Goodnight My Someone” that reminds of an American heartland Squeeze at their catchiest, we celebrate not just the joy such lively and unexpected treatments can (and do) bring but as well the buoyant elasticity built into the original compositions in the first place.

Indeed, setting the COVID relief aspect aside for a moment, the other benefit inherent to this collection is the reinforcing clarity it brings to precisely how deathless the melodies ringing inside those standards truly are, earworm hooks so powerful that every songwriter of just about every stripe, whether they’ve been aware of it or not, has hoped to emulate ever since. One senses with some certainty that among those that have been aware of it their entire career is Josh Caterer, a single spin through The Hideout Sessions confirming the sneaking impression that it’s exactly that Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building classicism that has animated his songwriter ambitions since woodshedding with brothers Eli and Matt in their parents’ basement some three decades ago. It’s a hunch underscored not just by those four included Smoking Popes selections – “Megan,” “Need You Around” and “Writing A Letter” join the above-mentioned “Someday..” – but more to the point how seamlessly they blend into the glowing radio pop DNA of the rest of the setlist. Records like this (rare as they are) don’t erase eras so much as, by their very nature, question their very demarcations, an always necessary reminder. [The Hideout Sessions available here via Pravda Records, and below, from the livestream, “Need You Around” featuring Max Crawford on flugelhorn]

And listen to Josh’s recent appearance on Stereo Embers: The Podcast.