Live Review: The Church - Enmore Theatre (17.12.11)

Playing a trilogy of albums in full is nothing new, just ask The Cure. But this evening’s proceedings came courtesy of their contemporaries, The Church. They too are a group that have played a recent show at the Sydney Opera House and have notched up over 30 years in the biz.

The Future Past Perfect Tour has seen the quartet play the States but December sees them back for a homecoming. It tracks the evolution of the band across three of their classic albums, each one chosen to represent a decade of their musical creativity and output.

Pete Townshend once said that The Who’s shows contained three separate parts. First, they’d warm up the crowd with the old favourites, then some newer numbers and finally, add a rare one or two for the more “committed” fans. It worked well for them and now it seemed like The Church’s turn.

Things started a little late with frontman, Steve Kilbey clad in the elder rock star’s uniform of black and greeting us with a “Good evening”. He would describe the set-up for the night- the records to be performed sequentially in reverse chronological order with intermissions in between, because they’re quote, “Pretty good too!”

“Cobalt Blue” saw proceedings begin with some claustrophobic brooding before “Deadman’s Hand” had some cool, 60s guitar riffs, some even calling to mind the work of the late, great George Harrison. Untitled #23 has proved itself to be an unlikely classic, being late out of the gates because at this stage most bands are resigned to nostalgia or carbon imitations of their younger selves. Instead, The Church have remained adventurous and melodic in music, both on record and live.

The ten tracks are like being suspended in outer space, like tales of the future intertwined with the group’s trademark, psychedelic sound. It means that as a whole the band is just as likely to have influenced youngsters like Dappled Cities as they have Youth Group and just about everyone in between.

“Happenstance” saw the quarter riffing on David Bowie and the enigma’s many guises. There were the requisite calls to Major Tom and some keys but also some light-dark contrasts with Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper sharing vocal duties.

A female fan would then prompt the following exchange:
Fan: (inaudible gobbledegook)
Kilbey: Pardon?
Willson-Piper: If you’re gonna shout out can you articulate please?

Later on we were also treated to two other fine nuggets from Kilbey. “Yelling out “Hotel Womb” is like seeing Macbeth and yelling, “Here come the witches!”” Plus, the cheeky: “We’ll deviate from that and do some Chisel numbers!”

On “Angel Street” they offered a sombre song with plenty of jangly electric guitar. Kilbey was in his element here with just a mic in hand as he flapped around the stage like a peacock-strutting and conducting. Tiare Helberg then provided backing vocals on “Anchorage”. It boasted a discordant guitar sound and some very Kilbey-like wit: “Waking early on Easter Sunday/Just before the cock”. In all, it had been melodic and arty, like the musical equivalent of following Yoko Ono’s advice and drawing a map and getting lost in it. Oh pretty.

The second effort, Priest = Aura picked up on the bewildering vibe but also tended to be more about an adventure to the land of lost dreams. With its darker music and more pessimistic lyrics, it was like a journey along a harder, longer road. To take a leaf out of Neil Young’s book it was out of the blue and into the black.

There was the sprawling affair of “Aura” but single, “Ripple” proved a highlight. There were plenty of chiming guitars to play off the general feelings of discontent. It also contained two lines of lyrics that perhaps best sum up what the band is all about. Consider:
“Buckle like a wreck on the cold green sea... You’re so fifty light years ahead of your time”

“Lustre” had some crunchy guitar riffs while instructing us to: “Strike while the irony is hot” before a particularly tragic rendition of “Swan Lake”. There were some rockier numbers like “Feel” and “Mistress” but overall, it felt too easy to see why this album can polarise people. While there’s no denying its artistic merit, at 14 tracks and many of these clocking in at well over the six minute mark, it doesn’t make for the most accessible music. Even with the fabulous guitar riffs referencing everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page; not to mention The Kinks’ Davie Davies and his love of distortion or The Edge’s use of atmospherics and pedals, there was no denying that there was a lull in the set, particularly during some of the songs that seemed more like free-form jams.

That said, there was the unnerving, “The Disillusionist” and the short, fevered bursts of “Witch Hunt” and “Old Flame”. “Chaos” had some of the Martin Hannett-assisted atmospherics that put the likes of Joy Division et al. on the map. The closing, “Film” drew all these elements together for one tight instrumental and a rather muted ending.

But it was Starfish that proved to be the star (geddit?) of the evening. Their most successful album certainly lived up to its “perfect” tag. Kilbey and co. stepped out in floral finery as if travelling through time to 1988. Opener, “Destination” boded well but the love in the room reached the ultimate climax when Willson-Piper strummed the opening notes to “Under the Milky Way” on an acoustic. It was a heartfelt and chilling version of the haunting single and in reality; there really aren’t enough positive adjectives to describe how wonderful it was!

Hearing the many rewards offered by Starfish made it all seem like the night was about delayed gratification. We’d skipped through weird, layered adventures in prog and frolicked in the wide, psych-tinged landscapes. Now all we had left was to celebrate these amazing tunes. There was the 60s-tinged bang, “Spark” where you could imagine Pete Townshend windmilling away to the power chords. “North, South, East & West” meanwhile, was about an LA that was less La-la and more blah-blah.

Crowded House’s “Locked Out” seems to share a few things in common with “Antenna” but it was “Reptile” that would prove another main attraction. Boasting an upbeat vibe and Tim Powles at the drums (who could’ve been guest-starring as the energiser bunny) it was retro-tinged and rollicking, something that you could imagine The Strokes covering with ease. It proved so good that a few people stood up in appreciation at the end and this was before the artists had had the chance to close with “A New Season” and “Hotel Womb”.

The Church had delivered an epic three and a half hour set. There was no encore but they did leave us feeling happy and with Christmas cheer. It had been dynamic and cerebral music full of the group’s spiritual lyrics about love and detachment with a clever suspension between reality and fantasy. At times cryptic and complex, it was like travelling in a time machine through evocative landscapes, swirling psychedelic and an ethereal haze. In the free tour program Willson-Piper had described the show as an “Auditorium of the imagination”. If so, it seemed that these doors of perception were blown wide open with space, melody and dense lyrics, and if I had a crystal ball I’d predict that The Church’s future will remain as inspired, creative and perfect as their past and present.