The centrepiece of this packed London weekend I’ve been telling you about was two days of music with The Church at Bush Hall.
I travelled by thought with The Church long before I ever set out on the road for real.
I still remember where I was when I first heard their music. “Under the Milky Way” was rising up the North American charts in 1988. I was 16 years old, and sitting in my dad’s car outside the Spencerville Hotel one late May afternoon. We were on our way home from the annual fishing trip, a journey that always involved stops for beer, but I wasn’t old enough to go inside the bar with my father and the other guys.
I sat in the car instead, playing the radio and wishing he would hurry the hell up so I could go home, take a shower and see my girlfriend for some urgent snogging.
And then that song came on the radio, and for a few minutes I forgot everything. The sound and the lyrics and the singer’s voice captured a sense of melancholy I’d always felt deep within; a sort of nostalgia tinged with longing for something I could never describe. But someone on the radio just did.
Their music was introspective, literate, and very different from the mainstream. And as I stood next to the speakers in Bush Hall and let this densely woven wall of sound wash over me, 30 years and dozens of albums later, I noticed how many of the lyrics referenced travel or ancient places:
…Nightmare descent into Jericho city, Camel dust heralds our arrival…
…A sudden voltage in the night, With a rainforest girl, As we float downstream to the Amazon River, Where the black waters swirl…
…During the voyage around capes of ice, The sea serpents hissed as it crushed us like mice, And the balmy nights of Shangri-Las, Drunk on pink gin and the old jealous stars…
If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know that The Church’s singer and lyricist, Steve Kilbey, was a major influence on my writing in those formative years. And this weekend in London was a great way to catch some outstanding live music while supporting a band whose work has given so much to me over the years.
Saturday afternoon was packed with solo sets by the incredibly hard working Steve Kilbey, and by soft spoken guitarist Ian Haug, who treated us to selections from his previous band Powderfinger and his collaborations with Grant McLennan.
Kilbey also returned to the stage with Jeffrey Cain to play some songs from their two Isidore albums, none of which I’d ever heard live.
The first Isidore album was on high rotation in my earphones during the dark defeated days of my last temp jobs, a time of my life when it felt like I’d never get a breakthrough with my writing, or enough money in the bank to cover more than one week. Music like that has a way of seeing you through, and of giving a sense of meaning larger than oneself.
The afternoon closed with a screening of Something Quite Peculiar, an entertaining documentary about Kilbey that has been making the festival circuit rounds in Australia, followed by a Q&A with the director and the singer.
And then it was time to vacate the hall for a bite to eat at a Syrian restaurant down the street, while the staff set up for a blistering evening full band performance. That night’s setlist was devoted to songs from Starfish — the first Church album I owned — and Hologram of Baal, their dreamy, distorted, floating late-90’s masterpiece.
My ears were ringing by the end of it all, but the weekend was far from over.
Sunday afternoon began with a screening of A Psychedelic Symphony, the band’s career-high performance with full orchestra at the Sydney Opera House. I missed most of that due to a late breakfast, but did arrive in time to catch the “making of” documentary at the end, a new addition which none of the band members had previously seen.
And then we were treated to interesting solo performances by drummer Tim Powles with his cool Berlin-esque electronic soundscapes, guitarist Peter Koppes with some intimate piano versions of his Church and solo songs, and a huge highlight for me, Steve Kilbey and Irish musician Frank Kearns playing songs off their Speed of the Stars collaboration live for the very first time.
Steve was also joined on stage by keyboardist Amanda Kramer for old favourites, and for several great new songs from an upcoming solo album.
The evening’s show — again a full band performance — was the 1982 album The Blurred Crusade played in its entirety, followed by some newer material from the last two albums. The music was loud. The band was locked in. The fans were entranced. That last night’s performance was one of the best I’ve seen.
They closed the show — much to everyone’s surprise — with a blistering rendition of Unguarded Moment, the single from their very first album in 1981 and a song Steve Kilbey hates to perform. But it has always been a fan favourite.
It was an intimate weekend of music in a cool setting, enjoyed with people who like this sort of stuff, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Canada and Scotland to be there.
It was an interesting opportunity to hear each musician’s take on their songs, and each brought something different outside of the full band shows.
And it was a chance to hear some rare side projects and solo material performed live, some for the first time.
For me, it was also a chance to catch up with one of my writing influences, to chat with the guys, and to talk journeys and books with fellow traveller Frank Kearns.
When the equipment had been packed and the backstage glasses were empty, we slipped out a side door into an alley, and walked through cool late night Shepherd’s Bush with 37 years of songs still ringing in our ears.