It’s a monumental occasion for faithful Oz-rock worshippers: The Church has once again returned to California. One of the keystone elements of college rock back in the ’80s, the Canberra-bred Aussie combo, led by bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes, was once part of a dazzling Australian contingent that included the Saints, Radio Birdman, Hoodoo Gurus, Died Pretty, Celibate Rifles, Screaming Tribesmen, Stems, Scientists, Moodists, Lime Spiders and Sunnyboys.
Kilbey has a sunburned look these days, like he’s just returned from a couple of months in the Australian outback with Mel Gibson, shooting Mad Max XII: Burned To A Crisp, continuing the endless search for gazzoline in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. “Hello, I intended to have flowers in my hair, but they never arrived,” said Kilbey. It’s a dead giveaway for anyone who hasn’t seen them in a while, to the musical direction the set will take. Rather than the jangly, slightly Velvet Underground-inspired folk rock of Church classics like 1983’s “Electric Lash” and 1981’s “The Unguarded Moment,” it’s the dreamy psychedelia of the band’s current album, Untitled #23, heavily under the sway of David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, that will daub your evening with shades of paisley.
If you’re a die-hard Church-head, you probably enjoyed watching Koppes (or a roadie who resembled him from the back of the barn-like Slim’s) tuning a small arsenal of guitars for the 50 minutes that preceded the set. Others might have preferred a dozen Popeye cartoons. Then there was the amp meltdown that brought things to a grinding halt for 15 minutes, about half an hour into the set. The breakdown seemed to catch Kilbey at a loss for standup material to fill the void. To kill time, he described the band’s drive north from Los Angeles, which must have taken a strange turn, indeed. Kilbey referred to both the Andersen’s Split-Pea Soup restaurant near Buellton on the coast-hugging Highway 101 and the cattle-staging area dubbed “Cowschwiz,” located near Coalinga. It’s actually the Harris Ranch, the major supplier of ground beef for the In-N-Out hamburger chain, and it’s deep in California’s central valley on Highway 5. You can’t take both roads. Then again, who’s to say the band who cut the enthralling “Two Places At Once” in 1994 couldn’t pull it off?
“Have you ever noticed, the farther north you get in California, the less you hear people shout out, ‘Play some rock ‘n’ roll!’?” said Kilbey to Willson-Piper. “They’re more sophisticated up here.” And play the Church did after the amp was fixed, although not the mindless party soundtrack some L.A. hecklers might have preferred. It was a treat to finally hear 1988’s “Under The Milky Way,” the grizzled Aussies’ sole American chart entry, played live. The last time I saw the Church, opening for Echo & The Bunnymen in 1986, the song was just a glimmer in its collective eye.
“Deadman’s Hand,” “Happenstance” and “Pangaea,” all from Untitled #23, are taken at a measured, Dark Side Of The Moon pace. It’s surprising to hear the Church has soaked up a bit of the Bunnymen’s essence over the years. Kilbey enriches the new songs with his 12-string, while Koppes’ slide work on “Happenstance” is exemplary. If the recent stuff isn’t as groundbreaking as its earlier material, the Church, like the Rolling Stones before it, should be granted a lifetime pass from creating spectacular new music. The band has already done plenty of that.