BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
“It has become fashionable in recent years for bands to hit the road performing “classic” albums in their entirety. Whether it’s Concrete Blonde doing some Bloodletting, the Flaming Lips delivering The Soft Bulletin, Roger Waters re-erecting The Wall or Rush putting up Moving Pictures, artists of all calibers and stripes are joining in the stampede to exhume their past glories for fun and profit, not necessarily in that order. It makes sense on a number of levels. In our current stagnant economy, a run-of-the mill tour may not be viable. Cash-strapped fans are apt to take a pass, rationalizing that they’ll catch ‘em next time when there’s more money in the pocket. To combat this quite understandable frugality, a tour in 2011 must be an event, a “this one can’t be missed!” spectacle. Next, there’s the nostalgia factor. You may not have listened to the band for two decades, but the fact that they’re trotting out your favorite album might be incentive enough to find a babysitter and get out of the house for a rare night on the town. Lastly there’s curiosity: Do the old boys (or girls) still have it? Can they recapture that elusive spark that made you take notice in the first place?
Australian rock band the church is the latest to climb aboard the bandwagon, but typical of these left-of-center underdogs, there is an intriguing twist: they have opted to perform not one, but three albums in their entirety, one for each decade of the band’s existence. Each performance begins with 2009’s Untitled #23 and progresses backward through 1992’s Priest=Aura to conclude with 1988’s Starfish, the album that gave the band a brief taste of international success via the hit single “Under the Milky Way.” (Tour dates can be found here.)
Three full albums in one night. We’re talking a Springsteen-length concert here. To my knowledge the only other band to have attempted something like this was the Cure, who did a series of Trilogy concerts comprising the albums Pornography,Disintegration, and Bloodflowers back in 2002. The key difference is that the Cure is a spectacularly dull live band. The Church, on the other hand, is known for expanding and improving upon its album work, often using the songs as launchpads for inspired flights of improvisation.
The actual three selections for this tour are interesting and quite shrewd. Anyone who was listening to “modern rock” in the late eighties remembers Starfish, so the inclusion of that record was a must. Yet there is nearly unanimous critical (if not commercial) consensus that the band is actually doing its best work right now, as borne out by the many 5-star reviews Untitled #23 received both at home and abroad. It stands to reason that the lapsed fans – the Starfish aficionados making their way back into the fold to rekindle their cherished memories for one night – might enjoy (and perhaps even want to purchase) the new material. Then there is the curious case of Priest=Aura, a space-rock epic that was ignored and/or drubbed at the time of its release but has since grown in stature, possibly due to subsequent albums by other artists (Radiohead’s OK Computer being the primary example) that seemed to tap into its vibe. To include Priest as the middle section – the very core – of the show is a daring move, one that turns what might be a satisfying but unambitious exercise into something really substantial. Nothing less, in fact, than a comprehensive dissertation on the church itself, for it’s impossible to walk away from the concert with anything other than a full picture of what the church is, was, and will be. At that point you can accept or reject based on comprehensive knowledge.
I was in attendance at the February 7 show at the Triple Door in Seattle, during which the band faced the added hurdle of having to perform to a dinner theater with waiters circling the seated audience like flies, cock-blocking the music. Or that was the danger, anyway. the church dispatched this threat by simply ignoring it and focusing all available energy on blowing the roof off the place. And in that endeavor, Priest=Aura proved to be the secret ingredient: a magnificent, dark, intoxicating trip with plenty of surprising twists and turns and lots of danger. Some of the more subtle songs such as “Swan Lake” and “Witch Hunt” had surprising heft and power in the live context, while “Chaos” gave The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” a run for its money in terms of sustained atonal freakout. The other two sets were not quite at this level, but both still had enough moments of transcendence to validate the trilogy concept. Think about it: the battle scene at the center of Lawrence of Arabia would not be nearly so effective without the slow, careful buildup, or the equally crucial denouement.
Of the “men behind the curtain,” Marty Willson-Piper owned the performance. Apart from some equipment challenges during the first set, he was on point from start to finish: stabbing out his guitar lines and driving the rest of the band with constant eye contact and cues. He wore a happy grin that said: I love my job and I’m thrilled to be here. His “Spark” (from Starfish) was one of the highlights of the evening. Drummer Tim Powles, also, never flagged. He absolutely demolished his kit – not in the literal sense of kicking it down and throwing it into the crowd a la Keith Moon – but more in terms of a sustained, unrelenting siege. Think the bombing of Baghdad with eardrums the only casualties. Guitar magician Peter Koppes cycled through a bewildering array of both stringed and non-stringed instruments and delivered another high point with “A New Season.” And hired wunderkind Craig Wilson filled out the sound with additional keyboards, guitar, six-string bass, mandolin, percussion, and vocals. Wow. He looks all of fourteen. Hopefully we’ll hear more of him.
This brings me to the man on whom rested the heaviest burden, the man who had to memorize reams of his own stemwinding lyrics and regurgitate them on command: singer and bassist Steve Kilbey. What he brings to the table is a cracked piece of stained glass. Approach from one angle and you’ll see beauty, from ugliness. If you don’t look closely enough, you’ll miss it entirely, but if you focus too hard your eyes will bleed. If, however, you move the whole arrangement just so, Ahhh…you’ll catch a glimpse of that dreamworld he’s been sneaking off to for decades. And then you’ll be hooked. You’ll keep coming back no matter what.
I have written previously about Steve’s Jekyll and Hyde persona; how there is “New Steve,” the norm in recent years: warm, affable, generous and very funny; and “Old Steve”: dark, cynical, bitter – or as he describes it in his own words: “tired n emotional.”
At the Triple Door we got a little bit of Old Steve, which is to say, a little bit of an edge, a bit of the old caustic energy. But with a very important distinction: in the past, Old Steve gave the impression of being detached from the whole thing: a grumpy god annoyed by the inconvenience of having to descend from the clouds (or climb up from hell; you take your pick) and sing for his supper. But this Steve, the Triple Door Steve, fully appreciated his audience. He didn’t say much else but he continuously thanked the crowd. Detachment had given way to an almost frightening engagement with the “angry” songs in the set. He snarled his way through “Anchorage,” “Mistress,” and “The Disillusionist” with something approaching Kurt Cobain ferocity. “Anchorage” set the tone:
My torch keeps on burning for you
In the life you keep on spurning
Everything is hurting me
And “Mistress” seconded the motion:
Everything is going wrong
All my songs are coming true.
During songs in which he was less engaged he would literally and figuratively recede, giving up the reins to Marty. At some points he even put his hand to his head as if the whole thing were causing him pain. Yet never once during the show did he stop playing the shit out of his bass.
As for where the anger was coming from, I imagine Steve would say that that’s irrelevant; the music is supposed to be a Rorschach test into which we’re supposed to read our own rage. Sometimes the church’s music is water, sometimes it’s fire. Tonight it was fire. He wanted us to burn with him.
There. Have I convinced you yet? You have the opportunity to see one of the best rock bands out there sweat blood for you. This ain’t the Craptacular Black Eyed Peas at Superbowl halftime, this is the genuine article. This is loud rock n roll in a small, enclosed space where the stakes are very high. Get on a plane if you have to. Just get your ass in one of those seats. Now.”
Robert Dean Lurie is author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church, published in 2009 by Verse Chorus Press.