The mood is celebratory as the church play the final show of a virtually sold out national tour, capping off what’s been a remarkable year for the band. There was the ARIA Hall of Fame induction and THAT amazing speech by front man Steve Kilbey, the release of a tie in best of record and a real feeling that after 30 years in the music industry, the band are in not only peak form but have few local peers in a stunning back catalogue.
Onstage in the dinner and show setting of the slightly faded grandeur of the Thornbury Theatre, the church are working their way in reverse order through their back catalogue playing one track from each release. Opening with ‘Pangaea’ off Untitled #23, the band appear relaxed and drummer Tim Powles steers the ship with his mallets on the kit. ‘Space Needle’ represents Uninvited Like The Clouds, while a smoky, almost jazzy version of Reptile represents the acoustic song re-workings of 2007’s El Momento Siguiente.
It’s at this moment that Kilbey’s increasingly shining reputation as a showman comes through, with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper playing Abbott in his correct pronunciation of the album’s title to Kilbey’s Costello. As much as ‘The Unguarded Moment’ may have been an albatross around the band’s neck in Australia, in this version off 2004’s second Liberation Acoustic series El Momento Descuidado album ,they now appear to play it without resignation; the occasionally gauche but nonetheless iconic lyrics a cipher for another time and place. Peter Koppes takes to the guitar to sing ‘Appalatia ‘off Forget Yourself, his smiling zen like manner contrasting against the exuberant Kilbey.
Introducing ‘Louisiana’ off 1998’s Hologram of Baal, Kilbey makes a sly reference to his then opiate addiction, and notes that the studio outside a Swedish country town in which it was recorded, ‘was near a train line and that ‘if you’re lucky you can hear the trains run over the tracks’. The pause prompting nervous laughter from the audience shows a deep vein of self laceration at the base of the showmanship. ‘Comedown’ off 1996’s Magician Amongst The Spirits reflects a low point in the history of the church, where the band almost in effect split, and Kilbey declares it to be ‘an album [euthanasia campaigner] Philip Nitschke approached us about;’ while Willson-Piper declares it ‘the album that made Nick Cave seem like John Farnham … Whispering Nick.’
‘Metropolis’ still retains its beauty from 1990’s mixed Gold Afternoon Fix, while ‘Under The Milky Way’ off 1988’s Starfish is introduced as the ‘song they HAVE to play.’ In many ways they’re right – a ‘song about nothing’ has become an Australian icon that the church merely remain parents of. It’s long grown up, moved out of home and taken on a complete life of its own. After a hilarious false start involving a note from a fan being thrown on stage informing Kilbey that he had a shirt button undone, the song is given a nice bluesy twist, with harmonica replacing the infamous e-bow guitar solo.
‘Already Yesterday’ features off Heyday, a period of which Kilbey isn’t afraid to lampoon the band’s fetish for paisley shirts, pointy boots and Persian carpets, while by the time 1982’s The Blurred Crusade is reached, contemporaries Hunters and Collectors are ragged on for their sudden rise to fame. Single ‘Almost With You’ off the album, with its simple yearning ‘I’m Almost With You – is this the taste of Victory?’ refrain amplified by the bass anchor is a highlight of the night. The show proper is completed with ‘Tear It All Away’, a curious choice as it was not included in the Australian release of Of Skins & Heart, rather appearing on the now hard to get EP Too Fast for You.
Although the band have performed two sets in an epic night, they return for their now oft covered version of The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Disarm’, a song perhaps originally covered in return for the Pumpkin’s cover of ‘Under The Milky Way’, with Kilbey’s rich timbre far more dignified than Billy Corgan’s now middle aged whine.
There’s a real sense that the church – having ably proved that they are still a creative force over the last few years – are now undergoing a renaissance with the gig going public , who are lapping them up. The transformation of Steve Kilbey into a powerhouse showman and entertainer is welcome and as they prepare for another US tour which is creating much media and fan interest, you could be forgiven for feeling that 2011 will be 1981 all over again, and they’re suddenly one of the hottest bands in the country.