Fans worship Church through three-album show – 11th Feb 2011
BY JEFF ELBEL
Four months ago, veteran psychedelic pop-rockers the Church were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame. Beloved by fans as the band’s brooding beat poet, frontman Steve Kilbey seemed unusually gleeful at the time. Following a stream of wisecracks and unrehearsed anecdotes which left the crowd in stitches, guitarist Marty Willson-Piper deadpanned, “We’ve worked so hard to be aloof and enigmatic — all ruined in 15 minutes, after 30 years.” “Aloof no more,” interjected Kilbey, making an oath repeated endlessly on YouTube.
At Park West on Friday night, however, the Church were back in character and rebuilding their aura of mystery. The band thrilled ardent followers by weaving musical spells full of grand gestures, menacing atmosphere and stratospheric radiance. Though Kilbey was quick to thank his enthusiastic audience, nary a yarn was spun outside of the cinematic lyrics to tone poems like “Anchorage” and “Swan Lake.”
That suited the packed house just fine. People came to hear Church music, and they got plenty. Though the band has earned respect for keeping nostalgia at arm’s length, their “Future Past Perfect” tour used it to advantage. In order to expose the maximum number of listeners to a complete performance of 2009’s critically lauded “Untitled No. 23,” the group also enticed fair-weather fans with a full-album presentation of their 1988 commercial breakthrough “Starfish,” featuring radio hits “Under the Milky Way” and “Reptile.”
But the band’s true love gift to acolytes was the inclusion of 1992’s “Priest=Aura.” The album presented the Church at its most inscrutable and aloof, and was never toured in America. Find a clutch of devotees who have worshipped the Church steadfastly since “Under the Milky Way” first shimmered across the airwaves, and “Priest” will likely sit atop their collective list of favorites.
The band’s point, naturally, was that its newest material stacks up favorably to these classics. It was hard to argue. Guitarist Peter Koppes’ elegant figures intertwined with Willson-Piper’s deep twang during “Deadman’s Hand,” as foreboding a portrait of oppression as any found on “Priest=Aura.” The rarely played “On Angel Street” found the group stretching into new avenues of sound. Undulating like a half-remembered dream of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” the song’s synthesizer pulse suggested the unsettling intrusion of a distant car alarm. Kilbey’s audio-film noir played about the emotionally raw edges of an unraveled relationship. “You should change the message on your machine,” he intoned. “Makes me cry when you say we’re not at home.”
The band’s resident producer and drummer Tim Powles anchored the show superbly – notably so, since two thirds of the material predated his tenure with the band. “Priest=Aura” was the band’s final album before Powles’ involvement, and he tackled songs including the shadowy “Ripple” and lushly chiming “Feel” as if they were part of his DNA. The taut “Lustre” was a showcase for Powles’ powerful and creative percussion, and the black humor of “Witch Hunt” was underscored by his cabaret flourishes.
After a brief intermission and change of clothes, the band returned with “Starfish.” Though anchored by its two hit singles, the complete package exposed the depth and quality of an enduring pop collection. The spooky “Blood Money” began with the interdependent guitar arrangements that have rendered Koppes and Willson-Piper equally indispensible to the Church sound. During deep cuts like “Hotel Womb” and Koppes’ own “A New Season,” Koppes often performed beautifully arpeggiated melodies with great finessse, while Willson-Piper’s right hand became an unfettered blur. The hard-charging gallop of Willson-Piper’s “Spark” was reminiscent of anthemic 80’s rockers The Alarm.
The night’s warmest response was reserved, of course, for the jangly “Under the Milky Way,” which Willson-Piper performed on a battered acoustic guitar that looked like it might have traveled every mile with the song over its 23 year lifetime. But the rarities made the night special, despite Kilbey’s admission of having flubbed “Starfish” chestnut “Antenna.” “We’ll make it up with this one,” promised Willson-Piper, grinning as he launched another song.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.
“I’ve seen Pink Floyd, I’ve seen the Stones, the Who, The Cure, REM,
Midnight Oil, the Waterboys – this is the best concert I’ve ever seen
in my life. And where are these bands now? who is standing on top of
the scrap heap mountain of smashed guitars with a sold out show packed
to the gills in Chicago? I saw beautiful maidens. Raven haired girls
who reminded me of her. These are the great minstrels from royal
courts, these are the troubadours of emperors, queens, and heros.
An intoxicating pleasure of music and memories, of possibility, and
dreams. I admire the Church for their high bar of quality and
integrity. from a distance I saw them as graying haired men, yet with
the faces of 20 year olds. some sort of resurrection had taken place.
Some fountain of youth that great passion, intensity and soul music
creates. it was all unrivaled. Ah, the variety of sound, from cosmic
space jazz of the future to a punk rock band in the 70s. the heartfelt
cathartic belting joy of ‘anchorage” that had tears streaming down my
face. The whole entourage playing for keeps. I stood up, cheered, and
saluted you. and so from the deep deep bottom of my heart, I say,
thank you, thank you, good sirs.”