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The Church, B.B. King’s & Highline Ballroom, NYC: Wish I knew what you were looking for February 17, 2011

Posted by Anton A in Australian music, Church.
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Textures. Beyond the brilliant songwriting, it’s the sonic textures that make The Church my favorite band on the planet. You can tell how much attention they pay to getting the right sound for every song. A dazzling blend of guitar tones from Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, astute drumming by Tim Powles and sharp bass playing from Steve Kilbey waxes and wanes from melodic to dissonant to ethereal and back again; it’s stunning ensemble work that frames Kilbey’s distinctive baritone voice as he intones a rush of imaginative lyrics that wander from wry to surreal: The Church sound like no other band, and create a memorable flow of music that resonates deep in my brain.

Thirty years on, the Australian band (though as Marty will tell you, there’s only one Aussie in the group) is still reaching new peaks of recording and performance. They are at their best on their current Future Past Perfect tour, which crossed the U.S. this month and came to New York for two nights. As on their previous Intimate Space tour, the show marches deliberately backwards through time, this year with performances of three full albums: Untitled #23, their latest neo-psych gem; Priest=Aura, a masteripiece of surrealism from 1992 with dark currents running through it; and Starfish from 1988, one of their most accessible and melodic albums, which catapulted them out of Australia and put them onto the world pop charts with the single Under The Milky Way.

The Church gave their enthusiastic New York fans three full hours of music in a nearly four-hour evening, with two short intermissions. It’s a fascinating way to stage a show: if you’re a serious fan, you walk into the evening knowing exactly what the setlist will be; there are no surprises there, though you know you’re going to hear songs that the band has never performed in concert. Everything hinges on the performance itself, and they brought it off spectacularly.

Steve, Peter, Marty and keyboardist Craig Wilson are all multi-instrrumentalists; the stage manager and another hand were constantly handing off Rickenbackers, Fenders, other guitars, basses and a mandolin, sometimes in mid-song so that someone could add the right texture at the necessary moment. On Anchorage, towards the end of the first set, both Peter and stage manager Wes Gregorace played bass, with the other three on guitars, each playing a distinctive part to build a huge work of sonic architecture, with “the divine Tiare Helberg,” per Steve’s introduction, adding a whispery female voice to the complex textures for just that one song. She is also the band’s tour manager; The Church is an ongoing effort where everyone plays multiple roles.

Marty handles the bass on a number of the songs, with Steve either playing guitar or simply declaiming the songs and working the stage. He’s developed a unique style of gesture, maybe a blend of modern dance and what seem to be a sorcerer’s incantatory passes, that paints an appropriate mood for the lyrics when he works the stage. As front man, he also delivered bits of amusing patter (“The strength of your New York charisma has made my instrument go out of tune!”) in between songs.

There were new approaches to many of the songs. From Starfish, Peter played a softer version of the burn-into-your-brain riff that underpins Destination. Milky Way was more driving and authoritative than the recorded version, Reptile hissed and slithered, propelled by Marty’s sparkling high-note arpeggios on a black Rickenbacker. Hotel Womb was made heavy and dramatic, reimagined to be a great show closer with passionate vocals from Steve.

Peter’s fluid, intelligent playing shone all night, but seemed particularly to come to the fore in the Starfish set. Tim Powles’ drumming was wonderfully crisp, a model of playing to enhance every song. As on their last tour, Craig Wilson filled out the sound on keys, guitar and occasional percussion.

There were so many highlights, I’ll never get them all. Steve’s dramatic front-man intepretation of The Disullusionist, from Priest=Aura, gave the song a new edge that was sharpened by the ferocity of the band. Ripple, a fan favorite, was sublime, with Marty giving the crowd a wicked dose of lead guitar. Chaos is a ten-minute epic that shows that the Church can do art/damage/noise with the best of them; the live version was intense, with Steve acting out the song, crouching, stumbling and covering his ears as if the sounds of dissonant feedback were driving him mad during the instrumental sections..

A note for musicians: the entire Priest=Aura album performance on this tour featured a six-string bass that looked like a customized purple Fender Broadcaster. Steve played it using a pick, occasionally wandering into the high notes to get distinctive tones for certain passages. He handed this special instrument off to Craig Wilson for The Disillusionist and a couple of other songs.

These were epic performances of deeply rich music, inspiringly conceived and executed by a band and a crew with a rare sense of focus. For my money, we won’t see anything better until the next time The Church returns to our shores.

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