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State Theatre, November 30

They like marking these milestones with a big room and a bit of ceremony do The Church. A couple of unpretentious lads (with friends) from Canberra? I don’t think so. And having not just survived but continued to thrive with regular infusions of new, usually high-quality, material and maybe even the occasional new fan, why should Peter Koppes and Steve Kilbey, the founding and remaining duo, be unassuming?

After all, since a hilarious and hilariously wide-ranging speech at the ARIA hall of fame induction in 2010, bassplayer/singer Kilbey has transformed himself from wary/grumpy/hooded-eyed semi-outsider to garrulous, music community-minded public figure, and not coincidentally, the kind of front man who struts about in leather pants (!) doing squat-splits (!!) and little kick-up-the-heels dances.

I am not making any of that up.

Seven years ago, they marked the 30th anniversary of their first album with a show at the Sydney Opera House “backed” by an orchestra and a pack of extra singers. This year we have the 30th anniversary of their career-setting album, Starfish, in this 2000-seat theatre and a touch of ceremony was evident, from the special bag of goodies for VIP ticket buyers (no commemorative tabs of acids, sadly; apparently it was a lanyard, a program and a few bibs and bobs) to the first set being given over to a full soup to nuts run through of the aforementioned album #4.

There’s a bit of class, a bit of comfort and a bit of sonic quality in these theatre shows when done well. But there’s also a few trade-offs, which is where any number of well-intentioned shows, such as this one, falter. Not fail, for certainly we got good playing, good sound, and as varied a setlist as could be hoped for covering nearly 40 years of recording in one half of the night. But not really as good as I might have hoped for, especially after the raves from their Brisbane show.

In a room whose management keeps it more formal and stuffy than the Opera House (do not stand up; do not come to the front; if you must dance please head to the side; and don’t even think about doing any of them if you’re sitting in mezzanine or dress circle) everyone, onstage and off, has to work extra hard to create an atmosphere that bridges the distance but also sweeps up everyone into a common feeling for a proper rock show.

That’s the kind of thing that happens almost naturally in a compact room, such as The Metro, for example, where The Church played 20 years ago. But despite powerful performances of songs such as North, South, East And West and the stone cold classic, Reptile, in the first half, and the pulsing guitar showcase Constant In Opal and the joyous Almost With You, in the second half that didn’t happen here until the reliably energising Tantalised, which closed out the second set, and then for the first part of the encore when the not-at-all-hoary missive from baby Church, The Unguarded Moment, felt like the gift-with-purchase that wasn’t in the VIP back.

Why did it not quite work? On a minor level, the visuals, never a strong Church suit, were plain in the Starfish set (essentially the original cover’s four segments/four band members set up replicated on the screen) and easily mocked in the second set (some drawings that were a bit cheesy and amateurish), while the lighting did a solid if basic job.

More substantially, while everyone was willing it to be, there just wasn’t enough physical and emotional connection between band and clearly devoted, but seated, audience.

Partly that was distance/age/unforgiving ushers; partly it’s a simple fact that a full album play through works to different structure and dynamics than a regular show would use (A New Season still wilts a bit live and would probably not be played in normal circumstances; Under The Milky Way was played when the band were still effectively working their way into the night).

Partly too it was some decisions that were logical but not necessarily right, such as ending the night with the wig-out power of the inventive and exciting Miami, when it probably would have been an emotional kick to finish with Unguarded Moment.

And partly it was the elephant not in the room, Marty Wilson Piper, who joined the band in 1980 and left in 2013.

You could argue Wilson Piper’s guitar lines were more than adequately handled by Ian Haug (the former Powderfinger guitarist who replaced him in 2014 and has in the several shows I’ve seen since always played with skill and a touch of awed fan) and the multi-purpose touring member Jeffrey Cain (who memorably contributed the attacking Rickenbacker riffs over Koppes signature guitar line in NSE&W). And his vocals were no issue either, replaced by Kilbey (on Spark) or by Cain and longtime drummer Tim Powles on backing vocals.

But even with the now animated Kilbey going full rock frontman, the absence of the visual alternative provided by the flamboyant look and manner of Wilson Piper remains marked. Koppes (who looks and moves, or not, exactly as he did when I first saw him play in 1982) and Haug (a graduate of the Powderfinger school of resolute unshowiness) were stolid presences, and while Cain gave it the best shot with a very physical contribution, he was at the back of the stage.

None of these factors were enough to skittle the show, and having the likes of the spaced rock Sealine, the dreamscape Ripple, the art rock of Another Century, and the pretty-as pop of Metropolis in the second set served to remind us of the range of this band.

It was undoubtedly a good show. But, fair or not, we had come, marking another anniversary, expecting to see more than a good show.

The Church play Palais Theatre, Melbourne, December 1; Royal Theatre, Canberra, December 2; Auckland Town Hall, December 4; Theabarton Theatre, Adelaide, December 7; Perth Concert Hall, December 9.


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