Steve Kilbey is the bass player and vocalist of an Australian band called The Church, which started in the early 1980s and is still going in their 60s. They’re to Australia what bands like The Velvet Underground are to the US – a hugely influential cult alternative band. The general public is most likely to know them through this song:
But if you enjoy that, you might also like this one, which came earlier and was the song that made me notice this band as a teenager:
On Friday, the 14th of May 2021, we went to a gig featuring Steve Kilbey and friends. This was in the middle of the pandemic, but in the West Australian bubble of near-zero community transmission, so we were mostly operating normally save the closed borders and extra attention to social distancing and hand hygiene. Here’s what I wrote at the time.
We are super happy because we gave ourselves a kick up our backsides and got ourselves to that concert I was deliberating about yesterday (because it was $66 a ticket and we’d only heard about it the day before and my to-do list is miles long). I’d been under the impression Steve Kilbey was going to do acoustic versions of two of their early albums, with string backing – since he wasn’t coming with the current incarnation of The Church, who by the way have made 25 (!!!) studio albums (I can see I’ve got a few holes to fill in their back catalogue… 😮). On reflection we thought that was worth going to.
And this is what we actually got: Full electric concert with a cellist and a violinist (both electric) standing in for synth! In a 600-seater, which due to the pandemic and to perhaps a lack of interest in alternative music amongst the older people in Albany was less than half full. That didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, however – fabulous, enthusiastically received concert in an intimate venue with amazing acoustics.
I didn’t have The Church’s 1981 and 1983 albums because that was just a little before I got interested in music; the first one I’ve got by them is 1985’s Heyday, which is excellent. But, as it turns out, so were these predecessors – this concert was a real treat… Here’s a sample song off The Church’s debut Of Skins and Heart:
This was all lushly presented live – the two string players really added something to the overall soundscape – and soundscape is what The Church did so incredibly well through the 1980s, and what sat so beautifully against the plasticky, trashy pop backdrop that was a large fraction of the 1980s mainstream. I’ve got journals from the mid-80s in which I decided to host my own music awards, and in them, The Church got Best Australian Band both times I held those – to my mind, they had so much more depth than INXS or the Hoodoo Gurus or even Hunters & Collectors (not to mention Pseudo Echo and their ilk), and were multi-dimensional in ways that few other Australian bands were (and Nick Cave hadn’t grown up properly yet).
Hearing two early Church albums I’d not been familiar with (save a couple of songs off them) showed me all over again exactly why I took to this music back in the day. I sat enthralled in mesmeric, often gorgeous, sometimes experimental soundscapes, and let Steve Kilbey’s richly resonant voice wash over me. The lyrics have always been above-average as well, which really helps to get people into my good books. The band played two full albums plus encore, but I could easily have listened to twice that this evening!
Steve Kilbey also amused the crowd with stories in-between songs; most of which centered around his memory of all the bad reviews they got by various critics. “This (Electric Lash) was called ‘the stupidest song ever’ by such and such a critic… – and this song was lauded as a better effort by us; he said that we should leave ‘haunting’ up to people who are actually good at it.” (Heartfelt boos and hisses from the audience at these poisonous comments, one of which had been from the NME.)
He mentioned that gated drum reverb had been an issue on the next album they presented, Seance – and they do it without live. Here’s a nice sample off that album (which some critic had apparently called an “unnecessary stoner jam”):
With the added strings the intro to this piece was extraordinary, quivery, electric…this is why I listen to music…
A few things were given different arrangements – Memories In Future Tense, he said he preferred 3/4 not 4/4 and as a sort of 1930s Hungarian barn piece, and so they went on to play it like that, and it was excellent. The alternative arrangement also didn’t have what he called the signature 1981 guitar sound, which he demonstrated on his bass. One song off their debut album he refused to play altogether, and said to it make up to us he’d play two B-sides instead. Much comedy was extracted from his explanations about vinyl, Side 1 versus Side 2 (“…but of course that means nothing anymore, nowadays it’s all random!”), etc – and at one point he said to a guitar player, “In the 80s blah blah…” and got, “But I wasn’t alive in the 80s.” 😄
Somewhere in the middle of the concert, an audience member exclaimed, “Now I can die happy, Steve!” – and Kilbey joked, “What? I’m as deaf as a post – and also as blind as a bat!” – turning to the wings of the stage, bowing at 90 degrees to us, and telling us we were such a fabulous audience. 😂 He mispronounced “Albany” as quite a few Eastern States blow-ins will, and got some giggles which immediately informed him of the mistake – it isn’t said like “Albury” – and he then went on to make favourable comparisons between our lovely seaside town and that landlocked place in Victoria (“and what sort of a name is Wodonga anyway?”). It’s great fun when you’re at a gig where there can be these kinds of conversational exchanges with the crowd. 😀
Interesting things happen when a singer plays bass instead of guitar – listening closely, I could hear that it affects the singing – since he’s playing rhythm, and pretty complex forms at that, rather than accompaniment, and it seems like he has to fit his singing in between his playing because of this. It makes for interesting stops and starts and timings in the singing.
The encore presented three commercially successful songs by The Church which, bless their hearts, were still alternative songs – The Church never made pop: Metropolis, I’m Almost With You and, of course, Under The Milky Way.
To make it perfect, I’d have loved another encore with Pharaoh, Happy Hunting Ground and Tantalized in it – but they clearly can’t rehearse the whole back catalogue for concerts, especially with alternative musicians standing in for original band members. These did a great job, by the way – the guitarists not quite as sharp as the original playing, but of a high enough standard to sound fabulous.
I actually took some photos…
Shaun & Adrian Hoffmann (guitars), Steve Kilbey (vocals, bass), Shaun Corlson (drums), Rachael Aquilina (violin), Anna Sarcich (cello); guest drummer “Lockie” behind string section, did one song outright on his own kit, and got an extra cheer and his name called out as they made their way off the stage post-encore – and he paused, smiled and gave a little bow.
We had the good fortune to be sitting right by the string section – both of us find strings extra-fascinating. Brett says that the first time he saw an electric cello at a gig, he thought it looked like a instrument from the future which had been beamed back in time…
Just from a low-range phone! And really just so we could remember it better…