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In The Flesh

Live Review: The Church at Thalia Hall • Chicago

| March 28, 2023

 

 

The Church, 2023

The Church

Thalia Hall, Chicago, IL

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Review by Jeff Elbel

Australian psychedelic rockers The Church returned to Chicago following a five-year absence, playing to a full house at the Pilsen neighborhood’s Thalia Hall on Sunday. A selection of captivating new songs honored the band’s beloved sound while carrying it forward. Some of the new textures and tones arrived naturally by the presence of new players in the lineup since the last visit by founding frontman Steve Kilbey and his crew. Kilbey was in high spirits throughout the evening, telling stories to connect listeners with songs from their new concept album The Hypnogogue and dispensing praise for his trusted bandmates. Kilbey’s mood even fueled a grateful tribute to the tour’s intrepid bus driver Joe, who recently kept the band from harm despite icy roads and a dangerously close encounter with a big rig. The singer improvised new lyrics for Jimi Hendrix’ “Hey Joe,” accompanied by quick-on-the-draw guitarist Ian Haug.

Depending upon your count, The Hypnogogue is the band’s 26th album. Its songs were strewn through the main set, which opened with the intoxicating new “Ascendence.” The strong response made it clear that many fans were ready for more than The Church’s greatest hits, which wasn’t lost on a grateful Kilbey. “I can’t tell you how great it is when people like the new songs,” he said mid-set. “It’s really a good thing.”

The Church at Thalia Hall (Photo Jeff Ebel)

Older favorites were delivered with flair. “Destination” from 1988’s Starfish was moody and turbulent, with guitars divided among Haug, Jeffrey Cain, and (in his first Chicago date with the Church) Ashley Naylor. Kilbey invited fans to cast their minds back to 1990 before continuing. “You might have heard this song emanating from a transistor radio in a window somewhere,” he said as the band began “Metropolis” with its carnivalesque imagery. The intoxicating chime and shimmer of Heyday track “Columbus” followed. Departed co-founder Peter Koppes’ territory was frequently covered by recently added bandmember and The Hypnogogue contributor Naylor, whose style produced perhaps the most identifiable evolution to the band’s sound while playing its familiar hooks.

“We had the audacity, gall, and sheer nerve to make a new album. I have to tell ya, it’s a fuckin’ masterpiece,” said Kilbey afterward, drawing supportive laughter and applause. “You know I’m a modest guy,” he added.

Kilbey established the storyline woven through songs from The Hypnogogue, a psychedelic, psychological, science-fiction song cycle. The Hypnogogue itself has been developed by Korean inventor Sun Kim Jong and is capable of pulling music from a person’s dreams. “It drags songs straight out of people’s heads and sends them straight up the charts,” explained Kilbey. The central character is Eros Zeta, a fading rock star who learns of Sun Kim Jong’s fantastic creation. “Of course, he falls in love with her,” says Kilbey, introducing the romantic “No Other You.” “It’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done,” added the singer and bassist.

Read IE’s February, 2023 Cover Story with The Church

Despite its relative unfamiliarity among the audience, the title track “The Hypnogogue” was a highlight of the set, weaving a mysterious and foreboding spell. The song described Zeta’s eagerness to enter the Hypnogogue in order to revive his fortunes and his bitter regret after getting what he desired. As it turns out, the Hypnogogue exacts a devastating price on its users.

Other favorites included the stately “Kings” from Priest=Aura and “Hotel Womb.” “Old Coast Road” from 2014’s Further/Deeper was revisited in a sparkling acoustic arrangement featuring Naylor and Haug on 12-string guitars in addition to multi-instrumentalist Cain’s six-string guitar and Kilbey’s six-string bass. “36 strings,” said Kilbey. “That’s value for money, right there.” The stripped accompaniment highlighted the song’s winsome Laurel Canyon melody.

Kilbey explained that the reflective and atmospheric “Albert Ross” eulogized Zeta’s guitar tech, lost forever within the Hypnogogue.

Next, it was time for another backward glance. “In 1983, I thought I was Percy Bysshe Shelley with a better haircut,” quipped Kilbey. “I had so much eye makeup that even pandas laughed at me. I had a mountain of paisley shirts.” He went on to tell the story of his American record label’s dissatisfaction with early fan favorite Séance. “It’s depressing!” Kilbey recounted being told before being cursed at and hung up on. Longtime devotees were nonetheless elated to receive rarely heard chestnuts “Fly” and “One Day.” New band member Nicholas Meredith’s assured drumming propelled an engaging version of the melancholy but tuneful “Comedown.” Kilbey introduced the song with another amusingly concocted anecdote, saying that the song was about his ravenous addiction as a four-year-old to chocolate biscuits and his mother’s stern disapproval.

The main set concluded with a string of heavy hitters, as pop gem “Under the Milky Way” led to Gold Afternoon Fix favorite “Grind” (a song that has consistently sprung majestically to life in concert, surpassing its recorded version) and culminating with a senses-shattering “Tantalized” as Haug slashed through the song’s furious riff. Dubbed “the noisy song” by Kilbey, the frantic Heyday favorite was anchored with power and conviction by Meredith’s drums. Veteran producer and drummer Tim Powles was sidelined for this tour due to visa issues but was said to have appointed Meredith directly. The band reportedly intends to continue with both percussionists, offering future audiences the opportunity to experience yet another reinvented approach to the Church’s sound.

The Church encored by answering requests for the sinewy “Reptile” and finishing with The Blurred Crusade’s “You Took,” performed with unbridled energy at a furious pace. Kilbey took yet another chance to offer thanks to faithful and receptive fans in Chicago. “We’re very grateful,” he said. “We live for applause; that’s all there is.”

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