“The concept for this limited winter tour–just 11 dates across the US–is that the band performs three of its most notable albums in their entirety. They start off with last year’s “Untitled #23,” album, and then dip backwards to 1992’s “Priest=Aura” album, and finally finish up with their biggest selling album, 1988’s “Starfish.”
Nobody’s going to ever fault the Australian rock band the church in terms of “bang for your musical buck,” after their ‘Future Past Perfect’ tour, part of their 30th Anniversary Celebration, touched down at Showcase Live in Foxboro Friday night with a three-hour marathon of their best work.
Each album is performed start-to-finish, and Friday night each one took roughly an hour, with a 20 minute break between sets. The end result is 34 songs, and better than three hours of music, spread over a four-hour span that might test fans’ endurance if the quartet’s soaring guitar pop wasn’t so enticingly melodic. And with Friday’s tickets priced at $33.50, it ranks as one of the season’s best bargains.
You might wonder how much of a draw this would be, given that the band’s biggest hit song “Under the Milky Way,” came from that ’88 album, and the intervening years have seen core members Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper release numerous solo works, while the band has languished, broken up and reformed. But Showcase Live was packed with about 500 fans, most of them in the thirty-and-forty-something range, and nearly all of them engaged and intent upon the music all the way through.
In general, the church‘s music has such a finely woven tapestry of guitar (and occasional keyboards) lines that it might remind some fans of U2’s sweeping musical vistas. But the emphasis on the lyrics from Kilbey and Willson-Piper, usually poetic, often bemusing, and just as often bewildering, cast the group more in a folk-rock tradition, perhaps like The Waterboys.
At other times, the arrangements are so intricate and cover so much dynamic territory,the church could hold its own with any of the so-called progressive rock outfits. In short, it’s heady, challenging music and if at times the church approach can be a bit too impressionistic, their unrelenting knack for appealing melodies is almost always the redeeming feature. In that respect, Friday’s show left little doubt that “Starfish” is still their best album, perhaps because it is the most dynamic. As intriguing as the newer music may be, sometimes it just creates a mood and doesn’t move enough.
“Untitled #23” is the band’s 20th full-length album, although the title refers to the sum total of all their Australian releases, including EPs. It emphasizes their layered, dreamy guitar sound along with Kilbey’s typically entrancing yet perplexing lyrics. Those midtempo guitar textures were delectable on “Pangaea,” while “Happenstance” took the whole aura to dreamy pop, with Kilbey on 12-string guitar and Willson-Piper playing some evocative slide. Perhaps the best song from that album’s set was the pounding primal rocker, “Space Saviour,” with both Kilbey and Willson-Piper sharing vocals.
A throbbing organ figure from tour keyboardist Craig Wilson helped give “On Angel Street” an especially spooky mood, and Willson-Piper’s bent-note guitar solo made “Sunken Sun” an otherworldly gem. “Anchorage” was the type of panoramic folk-rock epic that the latter-day Waterboys have specialized in, and its subtle heat was transporting. The last two tunes from the album were kind of static mood pieces, but overall the church‘s live version of “Untitled #23” was more vibrant than the CD itself–simply because it rocked more throughout the 60 minutes.
“Priest=Aura,” from 1992, has 14 songs and many of them are lengthy, impressionistic, ethereal ruminations. Delving into their more mysterious, even psychedelic side, it was hailed by fans of the band even as it sold poorly amid the heyday of grunge. Friday night’s rendition of the album took about 67 minutes, and the live versions seemed to kick the tempos a bit, which was a smart move. Willson-Piper’s keening guitar drove the slow-burning “Aura,” while Petetr Koppes and Willson-Piper crafted fiery guitar lines on “Ripple,” with Koppes’ phase-shifter solo a real delight.
“Paradox” glided along with exotic flavors, while “Lustre” displayed some of the band’s power-pop roots. The shimmering ballad “Swan Lake” had some terrific melodic flow, and the main criticism would be that it was too brief. “Mistress” was a superbly modulated potboiler of a song, as Kilbey sang of obsession and second thoughts.
No doubt, “The Disillusionment” was the centerpiece of the second set, an epic song where folk-rock becomes prog-rock, and Koppes’ guitar solos incorporated reverb and feedback to transporting effect. Even the hard-rocking, deliberately messy “Chaos” was fun, and the whole “Priest=Aura” segment ended with the delectably melodic instrumental “Film.”
If that second set didn’t exhaust the fans Friday night, the final set was superb, proving that “Starfish” is a fine piece of work. The spacey rocker “Destination” opened the set, with Kilbey intoning a line that could be the band’s motif: “it’s not a religion, it’s just a technique..” To no one’s surprise the live performance of “Under the Mikly Way” was a highlight, with Willson-Piper on acoustic 12-string, and Koppes using wah-wah and a synthesizer to enhance his guitar solo.
But if you left after that, you missed still more Church gems, like the sweeping dynamics of the rocker “Blood Money,” or a driving rendition of “North South East West” that had some of the best interwoven guitar lines we’ve ever heard. There was the punky energy of “Spark,” and the playfully hypnotic “Reptile.” In between those two, “Antenna” was built expertly from an acoustic ballad to a full-bore rocker, reminiscent of the kind of dynamic development Jethro Tull excelled at. A rowdy, rocking look at life on the road, “Hotel Womb” closed the night on yet another high note.
The “Future Past Perfect” tour ends in April in the band’s hometown of Sydney, and there was but one more date slated in the United States after Friday. Meanwhile, Second Motion Records re-released all of the church‘s back catalog of album in October, so old and new fans can catch up on the band’s three decades of rock.” – Jay N Miller