Thursday, April 22, 2010

Attending Church

The Church at the Armory, Somerville, Mass.

“Tragic … Simply tragic.” I imagine the words spoken in Monty Python-ese by Michael Palin as I scan the sparse audience of 250 or so at The Church’s lone Boston area gig on their Spring 2010 tour.

How could a band as epically good as these veteran Aussie art rockers attract such a spartan crowd? Lack of promotion, years of record company neglect and managerial ineptitude, consumer complacency and ignorance, or some kind of cosmic artistic injustice? Whatever the reason, the turnout is disheartening for a devotee like myself. People should be flocking to witness this band’s transcendent brilliance on display.

Nevertheless, The Church hold nothing back in this, the 13th stop on their 22-date 30th anniversary tour. To mark the occasion, they’re systematically featuring one song from each of their 23 full-length albums, performed in reverse sequential order from most recent to earliest (albeit with a bit of cheating).

Having regained some momentum over the past few years, it seems The Church have come to accept that they have a small (but passionate) following that appreciates their sophisticated brand of chiming space rock. After all, the band did bill this tour “An Intimate Space.” And that’s precisely what the recently renovated Somerville Armory offers. A 300-seat, gymnasium-like performance hall (though a fancied-up one) on the outskirts of Boston.

I have seen The Church live a dozen or so times since 1986, and despite the fact that they’ve done a couple of acoustic tours in the past, this is the first time I’ve seen them in this arrangement. As I expected, it is energetic and interesting, although likely even more so for the already converted than for the new initiates.

The acoustic treatment and the near-constant trading around of instruments among the musicians draws out different nuances and highlights different aspects of the songs. Some are radically reworked (most notably “Reptile” and “The Unguarded Moment”), while others take on new power and prominence (“Invisible” and “10,000 Miles”), and at least one really shines in a whole new way (an absolutely combustible finale on “Grind”).

The harmony vocals are much more prominent than in the band’s electric presentation – a pleasant discovery for a grizzled old follower like me. Guitarist Peter Koppes plays quite a bit of keyboards, some mandolin and harmonica, as well as several different acoustic guitars. Meanwhile, Marty Willson-Piper plays various acoustics guitars, mandolin and bass on several occasions, as well as contributing his distinctive vocal stylings (lead and background) throughout.

I especially like the band’s turn on “Jazzy Reptile,” as singer/bassist Steve Kilbey dubs their rendition of the radio-friendly hit from 1988’s landmark Starfish album (but for the purposes of this concert associated with its appearance in acoustic form on 2007’s El Momento Siguiente release). Koppes plays MWP’s original, catchy, descending guitar lick on electric piano, while Marty translates Peter’s sustained electric guitar melody to acoustic guitar.

Other stellar renditions of the night are “Invisible” (from 2002’s After Everything Now This), “Comedown” (from 1996’s Magician Among the Spirits), “My Little Problem” (from 1994’s Sometime Anywhere), “10,000 Miles” (from 1984’s Remote Luxury) and “Grind” (from 1992’s Priest = Aura). The aforementioned “Reptile,” as well as “Almost With You” and “Appalatia,” on which Koppes takes a turn on lead vocals, are also quite remarkable.

Somewhat less effective – and I’m being hyper critical here, as only a long-time curmudgeonly fan is wont to do – are: “Louisiana” (one of my all-time favorite Church songs), which seems a little anemic, lacking the majesty of the electric version; and “Space Saviour,” which was better realized in fully electric form on last summer’s “So Love May Find Us” tour. The band’s first big hit, 1981’s “The Unguarded Moment,” came across as a bit too languid for my taste. Nonetheless, even these few misfires were still entertaining.

In typically blunt fashion, Kilbey has posted blog comments about feeling fatigued at points on this tour, but you couldn’t guess that from this performance. He played with exuberance and feeling, and warmly engaged the audience and his band mates between songs – something we’ve seen an increasing amount of in recent years as the singer has reinvigorated himself as the band’s frontman.

Drummer/engineer Tim Powles not only provided a solid foundation throughout on drums and percussion – giving the acoustic treatments impressive horse power – but he also played some piano, sang backing vocals and added to the entertaining intra-band banter. As the group’s newest member (only 17 years in the fold) and its fourth drummer, Powles is often overlooked. But, I believe, without him the band probably wouldn’t exist today.

There are nine more shows to go on this 30th anniversary tour – from New York City (4/22) to Atlanta (5/1). Go see one of them, you’ll be redeemed … and you’ll get a nice program and new CD free with your ticket!


First Set:


Space Needle


Ionian Blues

El Momento Descuidado (The Unguarded Moment)





My Little Problem

Second Set:



Under the Milky Way

Already Yesterday

10,000 Miles


Almost With You

Tear It All Away


Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins song)

Space Saviour


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