Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Church’s Sonic Triumvirate

The Church at Showcase Live, Foxboro, Mass. 2/18/11

Last night I saw one of the most unique rock concerts I’ve ever seen – and it was by a band I’ve seen perform live more than a dozen times! The Church took the currently fashionable concept of performing a favorite album live in its entirety to a new level, playing three albums from beginning to end. The result was a very different concert experience — somewhat akin to watching a three-act play, albeit a psychedelically energetic one.

The pace and expectations of the typical concert were transformed during the Aussie art rockers’ most recent visit to Showcase Live, a venue found in the shadow of the New England Patriots’ home turf in Foxborough, Mass. Given the set structure, you knew what was coming next, but the flow of songs had added meaning and context, and each album was highlighted in a new way when juxtaposed with the others.

The three records the 30-year-old band is presenting on its current 12-city “Future Past Perfect” tour are: (1) its most recent studio release, 2009’s Untitled #23; (2) its last major label release, 1992’s Priest = Aura; and (3) its biggest commercial success, 1988’s Starfish.

The concert was strategically sequenced, beginning with the slowly building, atmospheric sheen and thoughtful, romantic lyrics of Untitled #23. It was the perfect lead in to what was to come, and it simultaneously highlighted the ongoing quality of the band’s creativity – even at this advanced point in its career – as well as the diversity of its catalog (despite maintaining a characteristic “Church sound” since the first L.P., Of Skins and Heart, in 1981).

As we learned from frontman Steve Kilbey early on, the nature of this performance necessitated less of the usual between-song banter so the intended flow of the songs would not be disrupted – though he was clearly tempted into straying from that dictate at times, especially during the first and last sets.

Several of the songs in the opening set stood out in this live performance much more than on the original album release. Of course, “Deadman’s Hand” provided some catchy riff-rock, and “Pangaea” some pop punch, but “Space Saviour,” “On Angel Street” and “Anchorage” came to the fore, glimmering more spectacularly than ever.

“On Angel Street,” in particular, seemed transformed into one of the most bluesy excursions I’ve ever heard The Church undertake, with guitarist Peter Koppes channeling David Gilmour. (Floydian references have always been as much a part of The Church sound as the Television-like dual guitar interplay, but it has typically been the spacey side of Floyd, not the bluesy riffs side.)

As on their 2009 “Love Will Find Us” tour in support of Untitled #23, the band members once again switched instruments for several songs. This mostly involved guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and singer/bassist Kilbey swapping positions, though Koppes and additional backing keyboardist/guitarist Craig Wilson did some instrument swapping as well. Drummer Tim Powles remained behind the kit throughout. The Untitled songs themselves were changed some from their live debut in 2009: proof again that The Church’s music – new or old – is ever evolving.

As promised, a short “interval” after the conclusion of Untitled #23 allowed the band a wardrobe change and time to transition into the mindset for the dense, opiated sounds of Priest = Aura. Long a favorite among the band’s hardcore followers (me included), this record is especially suited to the performance-as-a-whole approach. It rocks out much more than Untitled #23, yet its layered guitar sound is also coupled with rich lyrical narrative and diverse song craft – from the pop sheen of “Ripple,” “Kings” and “Feel” to the near-cabaret-meets-Kurt-Weil melodies of “Witch Hunt” and “The Disillusionist.” In total, it’s an epic piece of work.

“Aura” kicked off the second set slowly, but Marty’s fierce guitar tones were soon piercing the hypnotic waves of sound. The poppy aspects of the album (noted above) were sprinkled throughout the set, brightening the sound palette of Priest’s otherwise heavy sonic landscape.

Kilbey’s continuing rebirth as a performer since kicking heroin earlier in the decade was amply evident in this second set. Songs during which SK once stood stationary at the mic – concentrating on his pulsing bass riffs and perpetually rhyming vocal phrases – were now accompanied by purposeful prancing and flamboyant gesticulation. We saw the first displays of his newly animated stage persona on the 2009 Untitled tour, but this night, at times, it seemed a bit over the top.

This exuberance was most evident during “The Disillusionist.” The singer, freed from bass or guitar (as he was a handful of times during the night), punctuated the vocal lines with deliberate stabs at the air. Nevertheless, with Kilbey’s increasingly maniacal run through the song’s lengthy narrative (a formidable memory exercise in itself), the guitarists’ soaring accompaniment and Powles’ deft cymbal work, the song was a surprising highpoint of the middle set.

Overwrought physical expressionism aside, it was refreshing for long-time fans to see Kilbey look like he’s actually having fun. For their part Koppes and Willson-Piper conducted their complementary six-string interplay with the usual aplomb. They tangled in electronic frenzy for “Chaos,” the penultimate song of the set, while Powles kept some semblance of structure to the affair. The middle set concluded with the sublimely understated atmospherics of “Film,” a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, which could be said about much of the music on this markedly cinematic album.

Apropos to that, during the Priest = Aura set, as well as the final segment of the night, the film and slide images projected onto the screen behind the band became increasingly active and engaging, adding a fitting visual embellishment to the sonic swirl emanating from the stage. (This venue, by the way, has great sound and sightlines, too bad it doesn’t get great original artists gracing the stage more often.)

Though never boring or tedious, there was an undeniable element of endurance to the proceedings – for band and audience alike. It’s not too often these days (this side of Bruce Springsteen at least) that you get a three-plus hour concert from a single act. The brief breaks between each album definitely helped: pauses that refreshed, giving all a chance to catch their breath before the next excursion.

For the last set of the night, the familiar jaunty pop sound of Starfish was particularly effective.

Standouts tracks of this finale included the opener, “Destination,” which ended with some frenetic guitar by MWP; the angels in overdrive acceleration of “North, South, East and West”(one of the absolute highlights of the whole night); and the crowd-favorite, “Reptile,” with MWP’s trademark buoyant lick bobbing above Koppes’ sinister counter melody. Of course, “Under the Milky Way” was effectively delivered and enthusiastically received, even if it’s just another song in the band’s view.

The night ended appropriately with the oft-employed closing track, “Hotel Womb.” It was a majestic finish to a fantastically fulfilling concert. And the icing on the cake? Despite the promo materials for the tour, Marty no longer looks like Rasputin!

Hardly the best song performance of the night (great tune though), but a subtle kickoff to a fairly raucous final set of the lengthy concert.

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