Aussie veterans The Church have embarked on a North American tour as of this writing, and I dutifully headed down to the Opera House (not a real Opera House) in Toronto to check out this auld fave of mine for the first time in sixteen years…ironically, I just moved a four-hour drive away from Toronto about a month ago, but this seemed worth a trek back for.
It was a cold night in 1999 at the Guvernment (I admit it’s possible it was 1998, though!), a Brutalist concrete club in the poisoned docklands of my town, when I saw the band, my idols at the time (I think I’m too old for idols now), on their Hologram of Baal tour. Memory is hazy, but I remember being totally blown away by the sheer majesty of the way the songs came to life live, and the interactions between Peter Koppes’s and Marty Willson-Piper’s myriad guitar effects and interwoven lines — not to mention the poetry of Steve Kilbey declaimed in a live setting. Unfortunately, the band was in a pretty foul mood that night overall, and it was obvious even to us punters. Toronto can do that to people. But the sound was glorious nonetheless.
Fast-forward to today, and a happier version of the band is still giving her a good go, with, in fact, renewed public interest and a new guitarist, former Powderfinger axeman Ian Haug, in tow. The latest album, Further/Deeper, has been universally acclaimed (including here), and things are looking good again, finally, for Kilbey and company. (They’ve also finally been properly lionized at home in recent years.)
The absence of US tourmates The Psychedelic Furs granted us Torontonians two sets of Church, including the entire Blurred Crusade album. I hadn’t read up on the setlist of the tour and hadn’t been expecting this but, considering the amount of time I once spent with that album, I was mightily pleased.
First, though, I must note that the band’s dynamic has changed — in more ways than one. Firstly, new guitarist Ian Haug is a very different beast than the departed one. His stage presence (which it was mostly in Powderfinger as well, of course) is one of quiet musicianly enjoyment. A few arm waves and stuff, but mainly he just holds it down with a little smile…a musician’s musician. In that’s not at all dissimilar to incumbent guitarist Peter Koppes, whose own determined visage is occasionally broken by a little smile or two and some banter with the front row.
The other big difference is with Steve Kilbey, formerly a pretty aloof figure onstage, not unfriendly per se, just distant. Now, he strikes classic rock star poses, dances around a bit and joshes pleasantly with the audience. He seems more comfortable in his skin as a frontman, though there’s still that edge of tension, like he’s not quite simpatico with the posing and preening of rock stardom. He remains a compelling figure, though, a distinctive vocalist and a hell of a bass player.
The Blurred Crusade (the glam/jingle-jangle fusion masterpiece) set was just excellent. While the sound in this echoey venue led to a lot of stuff getting lost (especially bass guitar, alas) in the rafters, Koppes’s and Haug’s bell-like tones (Haug appeared to have some peculiar Rickenbacker model, though I wasn’t close enough to get a read on whether that was the case) on the album’s relentless jingle-jangle was tone-perfect. Koppes elegantly reprised his 1982 lead guitar hero role, and it was a thrill to hear the solos on tunes like “Almost With You” and “An Interlude”. The band really tore into the Ziggy Stardust vibe of “Field of Mars” and the psych-prog of “You Took” and got all ruminative on “To Be in Your Eyes”. Some nice accompaniment on keyboards and supplementary guitars was provided throughout the gig by a mop-topped young fella — I’m a bit busy this week for googling, so if someone tells me his name in a comment, I’ll be pleased to give him his props by inserting it (UPDATE: I’m told this talented fella is named Craig Wilson).
I have to say, though, that for me the highlight of the entire concert was probably the most rockin’ song in the band’s entire discography, the b-side riffy prog-epic “Life Speeds Up”, which I had on the Hindsight compilation. Always had a major soft spot for that one.
The mostly full venue ate up every moment of this set; Toronto crowds, while frustratingly quiet, do generally recognize quality, and it was pretty evident a lot of Churchian diehards were in attendance.
Set two wasn’t quite as great for me, because the murky, mysterious tones of Further/Deeper simply weren’t coming across well; not the band’s or soundman’s fault, it’s just a really echoey place, so with three guitarists making space noises, it just turned into a big woof of indistinguishable sound in places. However, when I could pick stuff out of the material it sounded great, particularly “Laurel Canyon” and “Miami”, both very dramatic tunes. The album’s just more of an experience than a set of hits, so in the live setting with the muddy sounds, more attention was necessary than usual to appreciate what was going on. Drummer Tim Powles always impresses me with his creativity, and that was most in evidence on the newest material; he also has a distinct soft yet authoritative way of hitting a snare.
A few other favourites, such as “Metropolis” and “that song,” the old hit, spiced things up, but a very dramatic take on the horror poetry of “The Disillusionist” from Priest=Aura (1992) stole the show, as Kilbey acted out his wonderful, creepy imagery (Lovecraft got nothing on this guy when he’s in an eldritch mood!).
While the band’s current overall demeanour onstage is more one of quiet confidence than unbridled rock-star energy (on this night, anyway), there’s no doubt The Church continues to make top-flight space rock, with the newer material going in slightly different and vital directions. For a veteran fan like me, it was a treat to hear material both old and new, and I hope this tour continues to draw newer fans to discover the band’s massive and often stunningly beautiful discography.