The Church at Showcase Live on Friday, February 19, 2011, Foxborough MA
A pretty convincing case could be made for The Church being the best Australian band, and that's considering some stiff competition. Hard rock fans would cast votes for AC/DC, pop groups would be split between The Bee Gees and The Go-Betweens, and Nick Cave's fronted enough interesting and varied projects to fall in any number of categories. Though the band would really only enjoy true widespread recognition via "Under The Milky Way," they've been making consistently good to great music twenty-plus years on from the release of Starfish.
For casual fans that lost track of the band after they left Arista in 1994, the amount of activity the band was responsible for could be surprising. For hardcore fans who never abandoned ship, it was more of a head-scratcher to try to figure out why the band's profile had dropped so low, despite the proliferation of solid records. These fans were the ones who filled the venues during the Past, Present and Perfect tour, where the band would take on the unprecedented task of performing three entire LPs in a live setting. They chose wisely; the starting point would be their most record record, Untitled #23, the middle portion their under-appreciated epic Priest=Aura, and closing out they would duly acknowledge the record that brought them widespread recognition, Starfish.
When a band plays newer material,especially one with a rich catalog from which to draw from, it can be construed as a desperate attempt to still appear relevant, whereas some audience members use the opportunity to hit the toilets or grab another beer. This was neither, and the record can safely sit among the stronger material of the past. "Deadman's Hand" sounds like an insta-classic from the '90s, with Kilbey's bass lines sliding in and around the chiming guitars of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper. The lilting "Pangaea" and gently swaying "Happenstance" gave way to the adrenaline rush of "Space Saviour" and the all-hands-on-deck of "Anchorage," featuring their tour manager on backing vocals and stage manager trading bass lines with Koppes, who picked up Kilbey's bass after Steve decided to prowl the stage unhindered by an instrument cord. The opening set clearly underscored the "Present" part of the tour name in a convincing fashion.
After a quick break and clothing change (Kilbey now wearing a striking skull print shirt), the band set sail into the dark and swirling waters of Priest=Aura, a record that aside from a handful of shows in Australia after its initial release never had much play in the live setting. This was the record that would be a transition point for the band; the label couldn't figure out the right marketing angle to capitalize on the success of the prior two records, there was no obvious single (and releasing techno and ragga mixes of "Feel" as a single probably wasn't the best decision in retrospect), and Koppes would leave the band before the next record was started. In short, what seemed to be a juggernaut eventually turned into a shuddering ride right onto the gravel shoulder. That said, both the band and fans have rightly regarded this record in a far different light, and it was a revelation to see the entire piece unfold. Koppes and Willson-Piper in particular are a totally underrated duo that create a seamless interplay, with the gauzy "Paradox," languid "Swan Lake" and stately waltz of "Witch Hunt" a marked contrast to the dramatic theatrics of "The Disillusionist" or the whipping maelstrom of "Chaos." "The Disillusionist" in particular was a high point of this set, with Kilbey convincingly selling the part with wild gesticulations as he danced and stalked his way across the stage, microphone in hand and freed from bass duties.
After the last intermission of the evening (and kudos to Tim Powles for playing drums and singing for three hours!), the most popular dish was served, piping hot. A side effect of playing complete records live is that the set list order dispenses of any surprises, but an unintended benefit was that "Under The Milky Way" was played early on, as I'm sure the band gets tired of that particular albatross, despite it being a top-notch song. Speaking of song orders, Koppes got a little ahead of himself by starting "Lost" with the killer riff of "North South East and West," with Kilbey shooting him a WFT look and Powles joking that the New Zealand pressing of Starfish had that particular track order. When the track was played in its right spot. the blistering riff of Willson-Piper tore a hole in the air, and his solos during "Reptile" took that song to an entirely different level. Wrapping up with the plangent tone of "Hotel Womb," it would be hard to think of this tour as anything other than a complete success across the board. The band's tours of the last three years have seen them in great form (Kilbey shedding noticeable weight the last couple of years, and Willson-Piper taking his hirsute pirate look back a couple of levels), and they genuinely had a sense of enjoying the moment throughout the entire evening. Let's hope that 2012 is as fruitful.