Firstly can I just say how great it is to see a band like The Church playing in a proper large theatre? To have everybody’s full attention, listening to and completely immersed in a fantastic band playing fantastic songs, fantastically well. So many bands end up playing pub venues with a half tanked audience who spend much of the set talking over the band to their mates about that time X decades ago when they saw the act ‘back in the day’ only snapping to attention when the few tracks they actually know (i.e. the hit singles) turn up. Then it’s all fists in the air, filming on their phones, singing along and enough buzz from those few tunes to tell all their mates how awesome the gig was. Tonight is absolutely correct. The Church are well deserving of the love, reverence, attention and adulation that is given by this audience.
The current tour marks the 30th Anniversary of their fifth album Starfish. It was the record that brought them into the mainstream of FM radio audiences and broke them in the USA. Thanks in no small part to the first single Under The Milky Way. A song that is irresistible, haunting and beautiful. That could be enjoyed on the late night dance floor of an Indie club, programmed on FM radio, or used in an episode of Miami Vice (this actually happened!). Despite having built a huge following in Australia with previous releases, it was Milky Way and Starfish that put the booster rockets on the bands career. The band these days is Steve Kilbey (voc/bass), Peter Koppes (guitar), ex-Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug on guitar, Tim Powles (ex-Venetian and a zillion other bands) and Jefferey Cain on guitar, bass, percussion, keys…oh lets just say everything else. Haug is an inspired choice to fill the big guitar boots of Marty Wilson Piper, jingle jangle Rickenbaker was so much a part of the signature sound of The Church
The evening is split into two halves. The first they play all of Starfish from beginning to end. Then after a short intermission they return for a set of rarities and ‘deep cuts’ and hits. Before they hit the stage there is a musical drone through the PA and the stage fills with atmospheric smoke and lights. When they appear through the smoke the applause is huge. They start with, well…the start of the album Destination. It’s mid-paced bass driven and is about as close to a Pink Floyd song as they have ever done. The lighting is stunning with piercing spots of light cutting through the velvet red and blue smoke (more of that shortly). Kilbey shares a quick but funny memory of playing Thebby theatre supporting Icehouse years ago and points to the spot in the front row where a young girl had spent the entire show mouthing ‘I HATE YOU’ at him. Perhaps he didn’t have a mullet to rival Iva Davies‘s.
The ‘Classic Album’ format results in latecomers missing Under The Milky Way as the second song into the night. Oops. Big mistake. Gigantic mistake. COLOSSAL mistake. I am in danger of spending a lot of this review evangelising the shimmering and golden perfection of this song. There is good reason it regularly sits atop of those ‘Greatest Australian Songs of All Time’ lists that radio stations and websites often to like to run. It has something incredible in it’s atmosphere. Those opening acoustic chords, invoke Bowie‘s Space Oddity, but Steve Kilbey’s dreamlike vocal and the poetic lyrics, melt into the the lush orchestration which features a sublime string section, brittle guitars and even a bagpipe solo. Holy Moly it is a goose-bump raising, staggeringly good bit of kit. Tonight is shines and sparkles as the smoke billows and the lights turn. Staggering.
By Starfish they had moved away from the overtly Paisley Underground sound of the early releases. Which were a bit more garage/power pop/Pebbles and certainly more conventionally ‘poppy’. Starfish gave the tracks room to breathe find their own space and atmosphere. Certainly the distinctive jingle jangle guitar of Marty Wilson Piper was still present on Starfish but it was a richer mix of glorious harmonies and slower numbers. Their sound was still grown from seeds soaked in sixties psychedelia, but informed with a toughness that came from having to playing pubs.
Australian pubs in the 1980’s.
While wearing paisley shirts.
The album still holds up and to hear it all in one sonic slab is such a treat. Songs like Lost and Antenna are amazing tonight. Reptile was another single that I always loved and it is a personal highlight for me. Peter Koppes takes the lead vocal on A New Season and an extended take on Hotel Womb rounds out the set.
By intermission I have to say those piercing lights aimed at the audience for much of the show have given me one mamma jamma of a headache.
They return for Set Two and boy howdy, they were not joking about those deep cuts. One song each from eleven different albums. So there were a few albums that didn’t get represent (they have released seventeen studio albums altogether after all). So for the die-hards this was a cornucopia of delights. Anaesthesia from Hologram of Baal (1998) which kicked off the second set and has always made me think that The Dandy Warhols were listening to a LOT of The Church twenty years ago. lead into Metropolis from Golden Fix Afternoon (1990). Another Century from 2017’s . All of these songs have a layers of guitars and swirl, ethereal vocals and sound like musical acid trips. For Sealine, the stage billows with red smoke invoking the cover of their 2003 release Forget Yourself. It is touches like this, and the sense of occasion, that sets this apart from ‘just a regular Church show’. If indeed any such thing even exists.
Constant in Opal from the 1984 EP Persia is another personal favourite of mine and picks up the pace and people are dancing all around me. Day 5 slows things down again with it’s sublime harmonies and extended version. Even during slower songs Steve Kilbey is pulling rock star stances, doing deep knee bends or odd little dances punctuated with Riverdance-style heel kicks. I don’t remembering him do this on previous tours. I’m not against it, he looks like he is having a ball. The 1992 release Priest = Aura is represented by Ripple. The set closer comes in the form of the frantic Tantalized from (1985’s) Heyday. Urgent, pulsing loud and amazing. Tonight it is a completely epic and a mind smashing TEN plus minutes long. Soaring guitar solos, a blur of drums and thundering bass, the longer it goes the better it gets.
They return for a three song encore and crash into the sixties pop perfection and brittle guitar glory of Almost With You, the only song tonight from The Blurred Crusade (1982). I love the later material that has been the feature of tonight, but if I am being honest, and I feel I should, those early records are the ones that impacted on me the most. The whole audience is on it’s feet and singing their heads off. With barely a breath taken they start The Unguarded Moment and the place goes bonkers. Often referred to as their first single (it was actually their second after She Never Said, failed to make an impact in 1980) Unguarded Moment shone out like a beacon of light when it was released. It sounded amazing on the radio. They looked ace playing it on Countdown and tonight it is an explosion of all the great things about The Church. Exception songwriting, exquisite musicianship and a psych pop hook you could hang your coat on.
Most bands would finish on a big hit like that, but tonight The Church choose to finish on Miami another close to ten minute sprawling journey from Further/Deeper (2014). It is a great song, as almost all of the bands later albums have been, but after the show stopping Unguarded Moment for me it was a slight misstep to end on Miami a song many would be unfamiliar with. It’s a minor quibble (that and those lights!) on an otherwise exemplary night with on of this countries finest bands.
Then I went to find some Panadol.
Live Review by Ian Bell
Destination (Starfish 1988)
Under the Milky Way (Starfish 1988)
Blood Money (Starfish 1988)
Lost (Starfish 1988)
North, South, East & West (Starfish 1988)
Spark (Starfish 1988)
Antenna (Starfish 1988)
Reptile (Starfish 1988)
A New Season – Peter Koppes on lead vocals – (Starfish 1988)
Hotel Womb (Starfish 1988)
Anaesthesia (Hologram of Baal 1998)
Metropolis (Gold Afternoon Fix 1990)
Another Century (Man Woman Life Death Infinity 2017)
Sealine (Forget Yourself 2003)
Constant in Opal (Persia EP 1984)
Day 5 (Uninvited Like The Clouds 2006)
Ripple (Priest = Aura 1992)
Tantalized (Heyday 1985)
Almost With You (The Blurred Crusade 1982)
The Unguarded Moment (Of Skins & Hearts 1981)
Miami (Further/Deeper 2014)