The Church @ 170 Russell, Melbourne, Friday December 1 2017

‘Too Groovy for the 1983 Philistines’

Through history, or at least since 1964, the menu of rock and roll vocalists has been expansive; Michelin Star to microwave to motorway cafe. Eye filets, foam of snail custard, burgers and baked beans, Stevie Marriott, Scott Walker, Sandy Denny and Tom Waits. This is a good thing, for if every voice was a Freddie Mercury, the punch of “It’s Late” would lose its sting, and legions of daffodil wavers would not have found Morrissey. With this in mind it is entirely possible to enjoy a gig by The Church, determinedly in the fish fingers aisle of the vocal supermarket.

This isn’t to denigrate the light baritone of lead vocalist, single-finger eighth-note bass player and general focal point of the band, Steve Kilbey. His singular delivery is, twenty-five albums in, their trademark in the same way Ian Curtis defined Joy Division. Set against what is often inventive and highly skilled songwriting however, it can seem like the weakest link, and the various band members’ half-hearted attempts at harmony an afterthought.

Perhaps minds were more often on guitar changes. More than ten separate stringed instruments by song number 4 of this lean set tonight. I’ve never seen more, and I’ve seen the Rolling Stones. That’s some organisational undertaking and speaks of a band who both know their stuff and have a serious equipment stockpile.

It was odd then that there was so little evident chemistry. Kilbey threw some classic rock shapes, a lithe and impressive man in his seventh decade, but has a disconcerting habit of singing above the heads of his audience. The effect is to appear distant, dismissive even.

There was also something of the disconnect apparent onstage at this enthusiastically received gig in one of Melbourne’s better venues; five (or six) individuals, not a gang. Ian Haug, a fine guitarist, played mostly with his eyes closed; perhaps dreaming of Bernard. Certainly there were very few smiles to indicate anyone was having a good time.

But this was not a bad gig. One sensed the pleasure these musicians take in relaxing into the more free, instrumental sections of their set. The opener in particular, Aura, a dreamy three-chord drone of atmosphere which began seamlessly from the intro soundtrack, was stunning. If the mix suffered from the perennial problem of multi-voice and instrumental crowding of the mid-frequencies then there were still jewels to be had, Tim Powles’ snare sound for example.

The fifteen-odd songs were received enthusiastically by this Friday-night crowd, reflecting decades of loyalty, with a special cheer reserved of course for the professionally-rendered Milky Way as befits its classic status. Any group that can remain active, let alone creative and popular, after nearly 40 years on the quicksand of popular music demands a deep respect from all music fans. Perhaps it is too much though to expect a deep sense of enjoyment from the band itself.

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Image credit: Nick Tuohy