As popular as they may be at the moment and so dear to the hearts of music fans in Australia, it was none the less an audacious move for the church to celebrate their 30th anniversary as a band with a one off performance with a symphony orchestra at the country’s best known music venue, entitled unsurprisingly, A Psychedelic Symphony. Taking the safe path has never been the band’s shtick, however, so it was little surprise that the 2,000+ capacity gig sold out quickly, with fans flying in from far flung parts of the world to make it. But could they pull it off? It’s one thing to go from subtle reworkings of your songs to the potential bombast of a 67 piece orchestra backing you up. However, despite the sense of risk inevitable with any ambitious and left of centre rock band performance, front man Steve Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper and drummer Tim Powles – joined by a stellar cast of accompanists in addition to the orchestra – pulled it off with aplomb.
As the cameras begin rolling for the live DVD and TV special the evening’s performance will become; appropriately, the band are introduced by TV news identity George Negus, who fulfilled a similar role in inducting the church in to the ARIA Hall of Fame last year. The band takes the stage as the orchestra’s overture of ‘Metropolis’ reaches a crescendo. ‘Lost’ off Starfish is purely guitar driven and the orchestra seems like a third wheel, before a few tears are shed in the audience during ‘Almost With You’ and the orchestra suddenly fits cohesively in the mix, a subtle and uplifting embellishment but never overbearing. The performance treats fans to a number of lesser played numbers, with ‘Anchorage’ an early highlight. ‘The Unguarded Moment’ takes after the live version performed on recent tours and is given the adagio treatment, the delicacy of the orchestral backing taking it in to the realm of a film score.
Led by conductor and arranger George Ellis, the orchestra remains entwined with the band on ‘Myrrh’, giving the space rock guitars on the Heyday version a heightened sense of ethereality, while ‘Grind’ is elegiac, the orchestra making their way off stage during the song and as the orchestral backing dissolves, the band explode in to a full rock tilt for the remainder.
An interval proves that no matter the elegant and iconic surroundings, there’s always a scramble for the bar, but as the audience re-enters for the second act they are greeted by an orchestra devoid of the previous all black ensembles – rather they are resplendent in outfits ranging from gypsy to pirate to circus clown – a psychedelic symphony indeed. As the backing projections begin, the band can be seen watching them from the wings like inquisitive schoolboys as the overture of ‘Happy Hunting Ground’ reaches its apex. A cover of The Dave Miller Set’s 1960s psychedelic classic ‘Mr. Guy Fawkes’ is welcome, if not unexpected; Kilbey having name checked them at the ARIA Hall of Fame Ceremony. ‘Ripple’ continues the psychedelic swirl engulfing the auditorium and the brass section adds to a particularly effervescent crescendo.
‘Reptile’ is a given a killer rendition, the guitar lick almost written in anticipation of melding it with an orchestra one day. A live revelation is Willson-Piper and Kilbey trading vocals on ‘Two Places At Once’, with Willson-Piper on 12 string and Koppes on keys, again the subtlety of the orchestral arrangements coming to the fore. ‘Spark’ with Willson-Piper on vocals trades reverb and delay for the 67 piece guitar pedal tonight known as the orchestra providing effects, while Kilbey hams it up for the cameras filming for a mournful ‘On Angel Street’. ‘Under The Milky Way’ is introduced as ‘the most popular Australian song of the last three million years’, while Untitled #23’s ‘Space Saviour’ brings the set to a close and the church are effortlessly given the venue’s highest accolade – whether it be for classical or rock music – a standing ovation.
An encore of ‘Already Yesterday’ is followed by ‘Invisible’, which briefly segues in to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’, while in the final encore promoter Joe Segreto is thanked by Powles, and Kilbey’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek when he thanks ‘God for giving us so much fucking talent’. It’d be ‘un-Australian’ to allow that comment to pass, but many in the audience would have a sneaking suspicion that they agree with the sentiments entirely. If final proof of the band’s worth is necessary, an epic finale of ‘Tantalized’ has the crowd in awe, and as the band receive their third standing ovation of the evening, it’s clear that 30 years on they’re still at the peak of their abilities; and with whispers of taking the show overseas to various major cities, the world stage still awaits them.
– Jim Murray
Photo by Sue Campbell