That the Church would be playing this little club for the second time in four years is testament to the band’s perseverance and the strength of their cult following. Factor in a string of critically acclaimed albums that has generated the Australian quartet more buzz than at any time since their late ‘80s heyday, add a reputation as an outstanding live act, and the stage should have been set for a triumphant firecracker of a show.
The Church + Sea Ray
13 Mar 2004: Shank Hall Milwaukee, Wisconsin
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Mind, when the guys get going, they create an utterly unique sound that is equal parts riveting rock and gorgeous sonic tapestry. They are perhaps the only band around that can boast, in Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, two prodigiously talented guitarists who don’t play exactly rhythm or lead. In fact, it’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly who does what, but the result is a complex, multi-layered bed of riffs, chords and effects—one that doesn’t need a studio in order to work its magic.
That magic became evident right from the start, as the band tore into “Sealine”, the thumping opener from their solid new Forget Yourself. This show offered a few surprises, though, and here’s the first one: Forget Yourself is being billed as the Church’s seventeenth album. That’s a bit of a stretch, but still, the set list was culled almost exclusively from only four of them: the new one; its outstanding predecessor, After Everything Now This; 1988’s landmark hit Starfish; and that album’s lead-in, Heyday, from 1986. Not necessarily a bad deal when you get excellent choices like the swooping “Telepath”, shimmering “Radiance”, sneering “Reptile” and supersonic “Tantalized”. Nonetheless, that leaves nothing from equally worthy discs like 1992’s epochal Priest=Aura and 1998’s mesmerizing Hologram of Baal.
Perhaps the Church were playing to fans who have picked up on the last couple albums and gone back to Starfish for some history. That possible scenario leads to the second surprise of the night: Starfish track “Under the Milky Way”, the band’s one certifiable mainstream hit, received no more or less of a response from the typically subdued Milwaukee crowd than anything else on the set list. The band themselves must have been pleased to see that their undeserved “one hit wonder” status may finally be wearing off.
At the very least, the Church seem happy to be playing regularly, selling enough records and tickets to allow them to make music their own way. That contentment was especially evident in singer/bassist Steve Kilbey. Far from the pale, shade-like appearance of his last Milwaukee visit, the frontman looked more than ever the shaman, with his ponytail and graying Fu Manchu mustache. This belied his genuine affability, as he joshed with the crowd regularly. Perhaps his best non-musical moment came when introducing “Reptile” as he mused, “Do you wonder why people talk about the ‘80s like they’re a foreign country…‘I know that guy; he’s from the ‘80s?’” Good question, Steve!
In live performance, though, contentment can be both a boon and a hindrance. This leads to the evening’s biggest, disappointing surprise: the show was just not that professional by the Church’s standards. When they were playing, they were great. But getting there was the problem. The set featured more false starts and between-song tinkering than a college garage band practice. Willson-Piper and drummer Tim Powles were the culprits; at one point, Willson-Piper started a perfectly fine sounding opening riff to “Reptile” before stopping and asking for more echo, and he performed almost all of his “See Your Lights” with his back to the crowd and face to his rig. Powles, who doubles as the band’s producer, seemed to spend as much time walking around his kit as he did sitting behind it. Kilbey did his best to be patient, humoring the crowd with what he called his “witty repartee,” while Koppes looked on stoically as if to say, “Oh, brother, here we go again!” Granted, the Church are virtuosos and Shank is an acoustical black hole, but the Church should know better than anyone: C’mon guys, you can’t spend the whole show in space.
Brooklyn, New York sextet Sea Ray opened. Fittingly, they sounded like understudies of the Church circa 1992. With a cello circling through their pretty guitars and keyboards, they were sophisticated yet unpretentious. Less than groundbreaking but impressive nonetheless.