Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Altar of Intelligent, Guitar-Driven Rock

Having seen three concerts by the veteran Aussie rock band The Church over the course of a week earlier this month, I feel compelled to write something about the experience. There have been only a handful of artists in my long, music-loving life that I’ve been interested in enough – and also had the opportunity to indulge myself to this extent – to attend several of their concerts on a single tour. The Church are the latest additions to an august list that includes Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Page & Plant, The Waterboys and Wilco.

The first time I saw The Church live was in early 1986 in Washington, D.C., when they opened for Echo and The Bunnymen (to this day, one of the best double bills I have witnessed). At that point, I had been a fan of the band for a year or so, having discovered their 1984 release Remote Luxury and enjoying a cassette of their first U.S. release, The Church, given to me by a friend who worked at my college radio station. I have been a total convert ever since – tracking down nearly everything the band (and its three principal members) have put out and seeing them in concert about a dozen times. Even today, despite a lot of twists, turns and tangents in the band’s career, I’m still a devout believer in The Church’s intelligent, atmospheric, guitar-driven rock.

Part of the challenge facing the band today – aside from the formidable business and financial concerns that one would expect veterans of their stature to be beyond at this point – is that casual fans still see them as an ’80s band. Sure they had their two big hits in that plastic, rah-rah decade, but today they are quite distant from the cultural touchstones of that era. The fact is, the bulk of their recorded output is post-’80s, and many of their greatest artistic achievements have come during the last 20 years.

But, due to this lingering popular mindset, the band no longer commands big audiences when it tours in the States. The shows I attended drew between 200 and 300 people each in venues that could’ve accommodated many more. Church appearances today, it seems, are for initiates only. (Sad really, since they may well need at least a few more converts to remain viable on a business level). Fortunately, the less-than-spectacular turnouts didn’t diminish the quality or enthusiasm of the performances I saw.

In my experience, the band’s shows are always good – and sometimes truly great. I can’t say any of these three recent shows was the absolute best Church concert I’ve ever seen, but I will say that they rank very near the top. I’d be hard pressed to say even which of the three shows in this stint was the best. They were all good, and they all had some unique highpoints as well as shared ones.

The Three Locales

Though similar in size, the venues for the three shows I attended could not have been much more different. The first was at Showcase Live, a nice new club tacked on to the side of a suburban movie complex (part of the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium complex) in Foxboro, Mass. The club features a mixture of a cabaret-style table seating and standing room. Despite its off-putting suburban mall environs, the venue itself offers great sightlines and excellent sound. For The Church, it also featured an engaging light show projected on a large screen behind the band – an enhancement that was absent from the other two locales.

The Foxboro show was a casual, intimate affair with more between-song banter from singer/bassist/lyricist Steve Kilbey than either of the other two shows. The crowd was quiet, but attentive. An added benefit of this gig was that, before the show, we got to chat briefly with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. He was affable and humorous as expected. (Maybe it’s his new Rasputin beard, but he looks taller than I remember him being.)

The second show was in Manhattan at Irving Plaza, a typical rock club with stage and open floor space ringed by with a small balcony above. As expected, the NYC audience proved to be the most boisterous of the three shows and the band responded with their most energetic performance. There was less between-song chatter and more of a full-frontal assault on the tunes.

I wrapped up my triumvirate at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse, a 500-seat theater in a tony, quintessentially New England suburb. (Kilbey even made a comment about the local real estate – he’d be glad to live there if you have a house to donate!) The playhouse was well-suited to the show, but unfortunately it attracted less than 200 people. But the few who were there were quite enthusiastic and it yielded a looser, less frenetic, more impulsive (particularly vocally) performance from the band than either of the two previous shows (especially compared to the night before in Manhattan). Even poker-faced guitarist Peter Koppes was cracking jokes with the audience.

The Set List and a New Steve

I was a little concerned that there was no variation in the set list from night to night (the whole tour, in fact). Fortunately, however, there were sufficient variations in how the songs were done, as well as the overall vibe of each performance, which minimized any potential disappointment.

It’s apparent that The Church’s goal on this tour was to really highlight their newest material – a risky endeavor given that casual fans view anything released after Starfish in 1988 (or maybe 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix) as “new.” That’s 15 studio albums and assorted odds and ends!

Seven of the 18 songs in the set were from either the new CD, Untitled #23, or its predecessor, Uninvited, Like the Clouds (2006). The new tunes more than held their own against the classics. In fact, every one of the new songs performed – with the possible exception of “Happenstance” (OK, but not exceptional) – grew on me considerably over the course of the three concerts. By the third show, I was looking forward to the new tunes, especially “Operetta” and “Space Saviour,” two of the mellower tunes from Untitled, as much as old favorites like “A Month of Sundays” or “You Took.”

The other remarkable thing about these shows was Kilbey’s appearance and performance. Not only sporting a buff new look (despite the thinning hair and gray beard), he was the most animated I’ve ever seen him – by a factor of 10! Who’d have thought we’d ever see typically sedate Mr. K doing Chuck Berry duckwalks and interpretative dance moves? There is something to be said for kicking hard drugs! Kilbey was more talkative than ever. It was also the first time I’ve seen him perform a song without either a bass or a guitar strapped over his shoulder – thus enabling the theatrical movements.

The Songs and the Performances

The band kicks the shows off with a great opener: the surging “Tantalized” from 1986’s Heyday album. It's a captivating way to get the blood pumping right out of the gate. In Foxboro, the song featured an extended staccato guitar strumming intro from Marty (stage right) before the rest of the band joined in – with Peter (stage left) playing unusually dissonant (almost punk) chords against MWP’s muted machine-gunning to further extend the intro. In New York, the band launched into the song in unison with a ramped up sense of urgency that foreshadowed the rest of the show.

The interplay between the Church guitarists has always been spectacular (a trademark of the band, in fact), but it has now reached a sublime state. The two musicians shine in their own right, while perfectly complementing one another – both in the free-form jams and the more compositionally constructed moments. Meanwhile, Kilbey and drummer Tim Powles do much more than simply build a foundation for the soaring guitarists.

The rhyming, low-key spoken beginning of “Block” (from Uninvited, Like the Clouds) follows the opener, eventually segueing into a momentum-building crescendo reminiscent of the band’s Priest-Aura material (sadly, none of which was played). “Day 5,” another tune from Uninvited, comes next and provides the first taste of the band’s atmospheric, elegiac side. Both of these songs come across much better live than on the original CD.

The sarcastic ode to L.A., “North South East and West” from the mega-selling Starfish LP, picks the pace up again and gives Marty another opportunity to command the spotlight on guitar.

Just a few songs later comes the first visit to the front end of the band’s catalog: “Almost With You” from 1982’s Blurred Crusade. Here, Koppes swoops in with magically melodic lead lines representing the truly classic sound of the band’s early, breezy pop. The interestingly chorded ballad “A Month of Sundays” from 1984’s Remote Luxury follows, heightening the acoustic presence in the set. It’s faithfully rendered with Marty carrying the tune on acoustic and Peter adding electric embellishments behind him.

Then, as we creep past the midpoint of the show, comes the first of the band’s epic jam tunes: “You Took”(also from The Blurred Crusade). The whole band seriously cuts loose on this one. They follow the propulsive improvisations with the majestic “Operetta,” which also introduces Kilbey’s interpretative movements. At the first show, I thought these were somewhat farcical, but by the third show I saw that they were genuine and actually pretty cool if you can appreciate the singer’s sense of ethereal whimsy.

The requisite performance of the band’s biggest hit, 1988’s “Under the Milky the Way,” follows. It seems sincere, not over-extended or grandiose. (In other words, they don’t milk “Milky Way.”) The rendition of the song in New York was the best of the three thanks to Koppes’ haunting e-bow guitar solos juxtaposed against MWP’s familiar acoustic strumming. One might expect the mega-hit from yesteryear to be the delegated set closer, but a different Starfish tune plays that role. “Reptile,” yet another colorful palette for the interplay between the two guitarists, closes the regular set with a noisy, but tight arrangement. The song is a showpiece for Marty, but in NYC Peter stole the thunder with his biting, melodic leads weaving around MWP’s jaunty riffs.

The encore’s commence with another jamming guitar excavation from the past: “An Interlude” (from The Blurrred Crusade). Each night, this is one of the highlights of the concert, with all the band members serving up the touchpoints of the classic Church sound. It is followed by the uplifting and declarative “Space Saviour” from the new album.

The band leaves the stage again before returning for a second encore of Starfish’s “Hotel Womb” – yet another major jam opportunity and the band’s most pronounced foray into their renowned Neil Young-ish feedback/noisy-guitar breakdown. In Connecticut, Kilbey even threw in some references to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” as well as Bowie’s “Jean Genie” during the final moments of jamming.

As I stated at the outset, I was already a convert, but these three shows certainly renewed my faith in and hope for a band that has seen its share of commercial struggles and miscues, yet continues to create great (albeit too-often overlooked) music and compelling live performances. Their 2009 “So Love May Find Us” U.S. tour is now over. I’m already eager to see them again.


Tantalized / Block / Day 5 / North, South, East and West / Happenstance / After Everything / Almost With You / A Month of Sundays / Deadman’s Hand / Pangaea / You Took / Operetta / Under the Milky Way / Reptile / Encore 1: An Interlude / Space Saviour / Encore 2: Hotel Womb


The Church on My Space

The Time Being, Steve Kilbey’s blog – Always interesting, personal and sometimes provocative. Written in a stream-of-consciousness quasi-verse-like format.

No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church, by Robert Dean Lurie, Verse Chorus Press, 2009. An engaging well-written biography of Kilbey’s life and career. Most of the focus is on The Church, with many revelations and astute insights into a complex, talented, very human character.


  1. Just stumbled upon this interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpq5rIYHlM8) with Steve Kilbey recorded backstage prior to the Ottawa Blues Fest two days after the Ridgefield, CT show I saw. He mentions an incident with a fan that occurred during the Ridgefield show. I can confirm that the fan in question was being a bit of an a**hole (he was less than 10 feet from me). Kilbey tried to be reasonable with him before finally declaring that the exchange was killing the momentum of the show and promptly launching into the next tune.

  2. A bunch of videos from the recent tour are now popping up on YouTube. Most are poor sound or video or both (lots of shaky images and the back of people's heads).

    This is one of the better quality ones (probably shot from the front of the empty balcony at the Ridgefield Theater. It's ”Operetta," off the new CD. It features some of Steve's "interpretive movements" and it's the sole song that he performs sans instrument:


    There's also one for "Under the Milky Way" from the same show: