ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RORSCHACH TEST The Church

A closeup of the
legendary Australian band’s “Future Past Perfect” 3-albums-in-1-night tour,
currently rolling across the U.S.

 

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

 

It has become fashionable
in recent years for bands to hit the road performing “classic” albums in their
entirety. Whether it’s Concrete Blonde doing some Bloodletting, the Flaming Lips delivering The Soft Bulletin, Roger Waters re-erecting The Wall or Rush putting up Moving
Pictures
, artists of all calibers and stripes are joining in the stampede
to exhume their past glories for fun and profit, not necessarily in that order.
It makes sense on a number of levels. In our current stagnant economy, a
run-of-the mill tour may not be viable. Cash-strapped fans are apt to take a
pass, rationalizing that they’ll catch ‘em next time when there’s more money in
the pocket. To combat this quite understandable frugality, a tour in 2011 must
be an event, a “this one can’t be
missed!” spectacle. Next, there’s the nostalgia factor. You may not have listened to the band for two decades, but the fact
that they’re trotting out your favorite album might be incentive enough to find
a babysitter and get out of the house for a rare night on the town. Lastly
there’s curiosity: Do the old boys (or girls) still have it? Can they recapture
that elusive spark that made you take notice in the first place?

 

Australian rock band the
Church is the latest to climb aboard the bandwagon, but typical of these
left-of-center underdogs, there is an intriguing twist: they have opted to
perform not one, but three albums in
their entirety, one for each decade of the band’s existence. Each performance
begins with 2009’s Untitled #23 and
progresses backward through 1992’s Priest=Aura to conclude with 1988’s Starfish, the
album that gave the band a brief taste of international success via the hit
single “Under the Milky Way.” (Tour dates can be found here.)

 

Three full albums in one
night. We’re talking a Springsteen-length concert here. To my knowledge the
only other band to have attempted something like this was the Cure, who did a
series of Trilogy concerts comprising
the albums Pornography, Disintegration, and Bloodflowers back in 2002. The key difference is that the Cure is a
spectacularly dull live band. The Church, on the other hand, is known for expanding
and improving upon its album work, often using the songs as launchpads for
inspired flights of improvisation.

 

The actual three
selections for this tour are interesting and quite shrewd. Anyone who was
listening to “modern rock” in the late eighties remembers Starfish, so the inclusion of that record was a must. Yet there is
nearly unanimous critical (if not commercial) consensus that the band is
actually doing its best work right now,
as borne out by the many 5-star reviews Untitled
#23
received both at home and abroad. It stands to reason that the lapsed
fans – the Starfish aficionados
making their way back into the fold to rekindle their cherished memories for
one night – might enjoy (and perhaps even want to purchase) the new material.
Then there is the curious case of Priest=Aura,
a space-rock epic that was ignored and/or drubbed at the time of its release
but has since grown in stature, possibly due to subsequent albums by other
artists (Radiohead’s OK Computer being the primary example) that seemed to tap into its vibe. To include Priest as the middle section – the very
core – of the show is a daring move, one that turns what might be a satisfying
but unambitious exercise into something really substantial. Nothing less, in
fact, than a comprehensive dissertation on the Church itself, for it’s
impossible to walk away from the concert with anything other than a full
picture of what the Church is, was, and will be. At that point you can accept
or reject based on comprehensive knowledge.

 

I was in attendance at the
February 7 show at the Triple Door in Seattle,
during which the band faced the added hurdle of having to perform to a dinner
theater with waiters circling the seated audience like flies, cock-blocking the
music. Or that was the danger, anyway. The Church dispatched this threat by
simply ignoring it and focusing all available energy on blowing the roof off
the place. And in that endeavor, Priest=Aura proved to be the secret ingredient: a magnificent, dark, intoxicating trip with
plenty of surprising twists and turns and lots of danger. Some of the more
subtle songs such as “Swan
Lake” and “Witch Hunt”
had surprising heft and power in the live context, while “Chaos” gave The
Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” a run for its money in terms of sustained
atonal freakout. The other two sets were not quite at this level, but both
still had enough moments of transcendence to validate the trilogy concept.
Think about it: the battle scene at the center of Lawrence of Arabia would not be nearly so effective without the
slow, careful buildup, or the equally crucial denouement.

 

Of the “men behind the
curtain,” Marty Willson-Piper owned the performance. Apart from some equipment
challenges during the first set, he was on point from start to finish: stabbing
out his guitar lines and driving the rest of the band with constant eye contact
and cues. He wore a happy grin that said: I love my job and I’m thrilled to be
here. His “Spark” (from Starfish) was
one of the highlights of the evening. Drummer Tim Powles, also, never flagged.
He absolutely demolished his kit – not in the literal sense of kicking it down
and throwing it into the crowd a la Keith Moon – but more in terms of a sustained, unrelenting siege. Think the
bombing of Baghdad
with eardrums the only casualties. Guitar magician Peter Koppes cycled through
a bewildering array of both stringed and non-stringed instruments and delivered
another high point
with “A New Season.” And hired wunderkind Craig Wilson filled out the sound
with additional keyboards, guitar, six-string bass, mandolin, percussion, and
vocals. Wow. He looks all of fourteen. Hopefully we’ll hear more of him.

 

This brings me to the man
on whom rested the heaviest burden, the man who had to memorize reams of his
own stemwinding lyrics and regurgitate them on command: singer and bassist
Steve Kilbey. What he brings to the table is a cracked piece of stained glass.
Approach from one angle and you’ll see beauty, from ugliness. If you don’t look
closely enough, you’ll miss it entirely, but if you focus too hard your eyes
will bleed. If, however, you move the whole arrangement just so, Ahhh…you’ll catch a glimpse of that
dreamworld he’s been sneaking off to for decades. And then you’ll be hooked.
You’ll keep coming back no matter what. 

 

I have written previously
about Steve’s Jekyll and Hyde persona; how there is “New Steve,” the norm in
recent years: warm, affable, generous and very funny; and “Old Steve”: dark,
cynical, bitter – or as he describes it in his own words: “tired n emotional.”

 

At the Triple Door we got
a little bit of Old Steve, which is to say, a little bit of an edge, a bit of
the old caustic energy. But with a very important distinction: in the past, Old
Steve gave the impression of being detached from the whole thing: a grumpy god
annoyed by the inconvenience of having to descend from the clouds (or climb up
from hell; you take your pick) and sing for his supper.  But this Steve, the Triple Door Steve, fully appreciated his audience. He didn’t say
much else but he continuously thanked the crowd. Detachment had given way to an
almost frightening engagement with the “angry” songs in the set. He snarled his
way through “Anchorage,”
“Mistress,” and “The Disillusionist” with something approaching Kurt Cobain
ferocity. “Anchorage”
set the tone:

 

Darkness returning
My torch keeps on burning for you
In the life you keep on spurning
Everything is hurting me

And “Mistress” seconded the motion:

Everything is going wrong
All my songs are coming true.

 

During songs in which he
was less engaged he would literally
and figuratively recede, giving up the reins to Marty. At some points he even
put his hand to his head as if the whole thing were causing him pain. Yet never
once during the show did he stop playing the shit out of his bass.

 

As for where the anger was
coming from, I imagine Steve would say that that’s irrelevant; the music is
supposed to be a Rorschach test into which we’re supposed to read our own rage. Sometimes the Church’s music
is water, sometimes it’s fire. Tonight it was fire. He wanted us to burn with him.

 

There. Have I convinced
you yet? You have the opportunity to see one of the best rock bands out there
sweat blood for you. This ain’t the Craptacular Black Eyed Peas at Superbowl
halftime, this is the genuine article. This is loud rock n roll in a small,
enclosed space where the stakes are very high. Get on a plane if you have to.
Just get your ass in one of those seats. Now.

 

Robert Dean Lurie is author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church, published in 2009 by Verse Chorus Press.

 

Photo by Chris Rady. Visit him at www.chrisrady.com

 

More Church at BLURT: Deep in the Shallows: The
Classic Singles Collection

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