The opening night that wasn’t

By The Columbia Chronicle

On Tuesday night, the Smoking Popes fused 90s noise with 50s romanticism while covering songs from a plethora of different eras, all before an almost-packed Riviera. Problem is, everyone was there to see the Violent Femmes.

Playing to an icy crowd that seemed surprised to see music coming from the stage, the Popes still managed to give their best, subtle sense of humor and all (their somewhat-hit single, “I Know That You Love Me,” was christened “I Wish That You’d Love Me” for the show).

In anticipation of their next record, an album of covers that pays tribute to their musical roots, the Popes took on music by everyone from Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello to George Gershwin (yes, the composer). But while Josh Caterer and company made good on their homages (few bands can sound so fresh while paying tribute like the Popes can), the band still never sounded better than when they played their own stuff. Performed live, their music makes any studio rendition stale by comparison, and songs like “You Spoke to Me” (from last year’s “Destination Failure”) and “Need You Around” (from 1995’s “Born to Quit”) still sound exciting and new.

As skilled as three-cord musicians can be, the Smoking Popes commonly cut and paste their live music, often playing two or three songs in one seamless composition. Thus, the music is full of pleasant surprises; witness the highlight of the evening when the Popes flawlessly inserted the Costello classic “Everyday I Write the Book” inside one of their own songs, “On the Shoulder.”

Headliners the Violent Femmes put on a crowd-pleaser of a show, if pumping your fist to folk music is your sort of thing. No real surprises surfaced as the band ran through the motions, covering staples such as “American Music” and “Blister in the Sun” as if they were their own tribute band. For most of the crowd, it did the job, but it reminded a few of us just how criminally short the Popes’ set really was.