Monday, February 7, 2011

The Church/LA concert review

A version of my review originally appeared on the Soundcheck blog at

Once a band is tenacious enough to reach the 30-year mark, its creative output usually slows down significantly. Not the church. From a steady stream of official albums and solo projects to art and books, members of the influential Australian quartet never stay idle too long.

Last spring, the church's career milestone was commemorated here by An Intimate Space acoustic tour, where the setlist contained a song from every studio release – mainly performed in reverse order. Back Down Under in October, they were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame (equivalent to our NARAS, which oversees the Grammy Awards).  

More recently, longtime fans have been able to revel in Second Motion Records’ back catalog reissue campaign (Of Skins and Heart, The Blurred Crusade, Séance, Heyday). And next week, White Magic, lead singer/bassist Steve Kilbey’s second collaboration with Martin Kennedy of Aussie electronic group All India Radio, arrives at music retailers.

While other groups might opt to perform an entire album or two over a multiple night stand, The Church chose to do three representing each decade of existence on the current Future Past Perfect electric tour, which launched Feb. 2 at the El Rey Theatre in LA. Everyone in attendance received a free updated mini souvenir program (something you don’t see very often).

“This is a world premiere,” stated lead singer/bassist Steve Kilbey, before the first hour-long set covering 2009’s hypnotic Untitled #23 began. “We’ve never done this and never played some of these songs live before,” he noted. “Or will again,” a noticeably slimmer and better groomed Willson-Piper added, with a mischievous smile.

“Cobalt Blue” opened the nearly four-hour show on an ethereal note and immediately transfixed the seated audience. Willson-Piper quickly moved from one guitar to another and back again. “Deadman’s Hand” found Kilbey and drummer Tim Powles’ lush voices meshing superbly. “Space Saviour,” a slow chugging rocker, had all the musicians gradually building steam before ending in a noisy barrage. 

Both Kilbey and Willson-Piper were in jovial moods. When one fan yelled “you kick (butt),” the guitarist responded, “we try to do it more delicately these days.” Tour multi-instrumentalist Craig Wilson provided airy keyboards for the subtle “On Angel Street,” where Kilbey was quite animated, venturing to the front of the El Rey stage. Joined by female vocalist Tiare Helberg (a regular contributor on church-related music) and a roadie on extra bass, the sad song “Anchorage” boasted a captivating, full-bodied sound. Kilbey used lyric sheets and dramatically waved them around while singing.    

Following an intermission, the church returned for the second hour-long set revolving around 1992’s Priest=Aura, an esoteric collection which became a band and fan favorite despite modest sales.

This time, the music did all the talking. Audience members that provided polite applause before suddenly cheered loudly after “Aura.” Fittingly, floating ectoplasm images were projected on the backdrop. Guitarist Peter Koppes’ amazing whammy bar workout amid the triple axe attack on a psychedelic “Ripple” got an equally enthusiastic response (two guys behind me kept yelling “whoa” after every extended guitar solo).

Koppes also shined with some chiming sounds and slide work on the poppier “Feel” as Willson-Piper shook his head and had fun while soloing. The cabaret music vibe of “Witch Hunt” worked extremely well. A trippy “The Disillusionist” saw Kilbey using the lyric sheets again and providing one of the night’s most dramatic deliveries; robustly singing the group sea shanty chorus and ending with a poetic recitation. The crowd gave it a standing ovation.  

Gradually unraveling songs are common for the church. The close to 10-minute long “Chaos” - all claustrophobic sounds, sinister guitar effects and white noise – truly lived up to its title. Kilbey clutched his face in mock agony and fans cheered wildly. The set concluded with the instrumental “Film,” evoking late ‘80s Cure.

Another half-hour intermission elapsed. Then it was time for what many church followers had anticipated all night: 1988’s Starfish - the band’s biggest-selling American album. It is one of their strongest efforts, though Willson-Piper has gone on record with the opposite opinion. He wrote that it engulfs you with “pure simplicity” in the tour program.

Kilbey’s understated vocals were nearly whispered during “Destination,” which was driven by Koppes’ searing leads and Willson-Piper’s inspired playing. The former used a spacey effect in place of the bagpipes on signature hit “Under the Milky Way,” as the latter guitarist played a beat up 12-string. The dreamy track still sounded transcendent and unique.

Seeing American currency displayed on the screen for an eerie “Blood Money” reminded me of its expert use in a “Miami Vice” episode. Here, it sounded particularly sharp. The warm jangle enveloping “Lost” featured a brief Springsteen lyric snatch (“Backstreets”). Willson-Piper really proved his mettle amid the lightning fast arpeggios in “North, South, East and West,” dazzling guitar work on the rocking “Spark” (where he ably handled lead vocals), intense “Reptile” and smooth closer “Hotel Womb.”

All told, this was a brilliant show from the church. Hopefully, they’ll film an upcoming tour stop for future DVD release.

Photo courtesy of Big Hassle Media/Second Motion Records    

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