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Review of The Church at the Quarry in Perth 2010 Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Travis Johnson gives us this excellent review of a show in Perth. He wishes more people would come and see them, and the audience is too attached to the older material! The show was December 17th 2010 and this was originally published at Faster Louder.

Counting this expedition to City Beach, I’ve seen The Church three times now. I always enjoy a dose of their jangly experimentalism, walking a strange and narrow line between paisley pop and prog rock. The first time I saw them was at Metro Freo, the second at whatever Amplifier was called then. This time I’d see them outdoors (_Under the Milky Way_ -geddit?). I couldn’t think of a better setting.

But as I walked from the car park to the amphitheatre, a strange sense of unease crept over me. I took in the crowd around me: mostly middle aged, mostly professional. Blankets and cushions were tucked under arms. I caught a snippet of conversation; someone was describing the ongoing renovations of their Margaret River holiday home. A few moments later I heard the term “investment portfolio”.

Dear God. In the span of a few short years The Church have gone from respectably alternative to something entirely other. You might call it MOR or AOR, but I think of it as OPE: Old People’s entertainment. You can’t really blame Kilbey and co; the 80s were a long time ago, and their audience has aged with them, sadly they seem to not have recruited many new members. As I surveyed the sea of picnic hampers and Thermoses around me, I realised that I wasn’t quite the youngest person in the audience, but it was a close-run race, and I’d only been beaten by one or two punters who were clearly attending with their parents.

I’m thirty-three, dammit. Far too young the deal with the spectre of my own mortality through the prism of a white-collar concert crowd. But I digress.

The support act was already in full swing when we settled in between a DINK power couple and a small posse of greying homosexuals. The Holy Sea are always worth catching. Frontman Henry F. Skerritt fairly threw himself and his guitar around the stage, half the time looking like he was trying to strangle the poor instrument into submission, as Emma Frichot’s vocals floated over the crowd while the evening sky purpled behind the band.

Musically they are a good fit for The Church, although their sound has more than a touch of the Nick Caves. Drummer F. David Bower took a moment out to confess that he’d first smoked weed at a Church show, and there was a moment of serendipity when a few dragonflies hovered over the stage while the band played Here Be Dragons.

And then it was time. Without unnecessary ceremony The Church took to the stage. Singer/bassist Steve Kilbey looked lean and focussed as they launched into Tantalized; his shadow projected onto the hewn rock wall to the side of the stage. Axeman Marty Wilson-Piper, by contrast, these days resembles nothing so much as a squat funhouse-mirror reflection of Alan Moore, all beard and hair, though his skills have in no way diminished. There was no showboating; rather we saw the relaxed professionalism of a group who had been playing together for decades (as Kilbey joked, the baby of the group, drummer Tim Powels, has only been with the group for eighteen years).

The set was a mix of the old and new, with 1989’s LP Starfish contributing the most tracks. This was hardly surprising – it’s their most well known album after all – and the crowd reacted well to North, South East, Reptile and of course Under the Milky Way. Perhaps even stronger was the reaction to the cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm that was tossed into the middle of the mix, proving that, no matter what music the band may listen to these days, they keep track of who’s covering them.

Less warmly received were the newer or more obscure tracks that comprised at least half of the show. The Church’s heyday may have been twenty years ago, but they’ve not rested on their laurels, and seem loathe to revisit past glories simply to please the crowd – Unguarded Moment easily their most well-known song, has famously been retired from live performance for years. But the crowd didn’t want to pay them the same courtesy, and a litany of song requests were shouted at the stage any time there was a break in the music. The quality of the set didn’t falter, but is it any wonder the band looked slightly bored as they pushed through Milky Way yet again?

And that’s maybe the tragedy of a band like The Church – they may have moved forward, but their faithful haven’t. Music is measured by chart success, and nothing they’ve released in the last twenty years has found its way onto a Hits of Summer compilation. The crowd at the Quarry wanted the soundtrack of their youth, not anything newer or – heaven forfend – more interesting. As the obnoxious guy a few seats to my right felt driven to comment loudly and repeatedly, they wanted to “go old school.” Never mind that Untitled 23 is a great album, or that the single Pangaea is easily on par with anything The Church have previously released – give me familiarity, or give me death.

Maybe that’s why, at the first of three encores, Kilbey announced that they were going to play “everything you hate” and proceeded to hit the audience with another twenty or so minutes of back-catalogue obscurities and new music, only relenting when he capped the night off with Hotel Womb from the aforementioned Starfish. And then, with an exhortation from Piper that he’d see us on Saturday for his solo gig, it was over.

On reflection, it was a melancholic experience. True, the music lends itself to such a mood, but it was more than that. The Church were excellent, as always, but were let down by a lacklustre and unimaginative crowd. Maybe we need a new word to describe it. What do you call it when a band remains relevant, but their core audience outlives their usefulness? Answers on the back of a postcard, please. In any case, should you ever have the opportunity to see the Church live, seize it with both hands. You’ll see one of Australia’s most important and influential alternative bands, and if enough of you turn up, they’ll get the audience they deserve.

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