For the diehards who crowded the Sinclair, the Church aren’t about hit singles and nostalgia; they’re about double-guitar dreamscapes and psychedelic visions.
By Brett Milano
Midway through Thursday’s sold-out show at the Sinclair, singer/bassist Steve Kilbey announced the Church’s last big hit—namely “Metropolis,” from 1990. “Twenty-five years!,” he said with theatrical flourish. “The last time we ever darkened commercial radio’s door!” What came through was immense pride—not that they’d had the hits, but that they’ve operated for the last quarter-century without them.
‘Metropolis” aside, the Church’s mainstream US career pretty much begins and ends with an earlier single, “Under the Milky Way,” which Kilbey introduced with another flourish at the Sinclair (noting that Denis Leary had used it in a movie, and said he’d heard the song in every bar in Boston, Kilbey said “Here it is, a part of your history”). But it was telling that the song came and went without much response. For the diehards who crowded the Sinclair, the Church aren’t about hit singles and nostalgia; they’re about double-guitar dreamscapes and psychedelic visions. This they delivered over a two-hour-plus set.
This was the band’s first tour without Marty Willson-Piper, their co-lead singer and co-lead guitarist (and in recent years, their manager as well)—a milestone, since he and Kilbey were the only consistent members through the band’s 35-year history (Founding co-guitarist Peter Koppes left in the ’90s but since returned; current drummer Tim Powles joined around that time). And on Thursday the core quartet was joined by two auxiliary players who switched off on guitar and keyboards. But it was one of those rare cases where new blood—specifically that of guitarist Ian Haug, from the Australian classic rock-inspired band Powderfinger—has revitalized a veteran band.
Haug was allowed the first big solo of the night, on “Is This Where You Live.” As the song revved up after its moody intro, Haug cut loose with the kind of sitar-like solo that Jeff Beck might have played in his Yardbirds days, underlining the Church’s psychedelic roots. The set proved an adventurous one, often favoring their more textural and less pop-friendly material. Another early track, “You Took”—with a long tension-and-release arrangement and a climactic guitar duel—used to be their regular set-closer; on Thursday it was played just four songs in, as if to get the cheap thrills out of the way.
The biggest change was in Kilbey, once a spectral presence onstage but at age 60 he’s athletic and positively exuberant (As he’s freely admitted, dropping a heroin habit probably helps). For a few songs he turned over his bass to become more of a physical performer; on “The Disillusionist” he did a memorable turn as a demented carnival barker. That goth-edged tune was the high point of the set, but there were simpler pleasures in “Laurel Canyon”—yes, a nod to the ’70s California sound with acoustic guitars and harmonies—and the droning “Delirious.” There were rough spots here and there — particularly when Willson-Piper’s backing vocals were missed—and “Miami,” with a sarcastic lyric about how good life is down there, made for an odd set-closer. For the most part, however, this is a band still evolving and still dreaming.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.