The Ardmore Music Hall is an intimate room that feels like two completely different venues. It has the vibe of a classy old school theater, but offers $3 Bud Light specials. It’s close enough to Philly that band itineraries say that that’s where they are, yet it sits in the middle of a quaint street that may as well be Main Street, Anytown, USA.
In many respects this makes it the perfect venue for The Church, at least on these shores. The band is known to many as a quintessential ‘80s one-hit wonder, whose “Under the Milky Way” is still a VH1 Classic staple and still a standby on alt-hits radio stations; Starfish, the 1988 album from which it is culled, remains the band’s only gold record.
Yet the room didn’t fill up out of nostalgia for one song. The crowd assembled for a revered band that spent years in Australia making sublimely hypnotic psychedelia-infused jangly pop songs, a cult attraction that might have outgrown the outback thanks to good timing, good fortune, and a good song, but one with a catalogue of 24 albums spanning more than 35 years.
This explains why the show was billed as “An Evening with The Church,” sans support, and why those in attendance came early and were rapt with attention the entire set. This includes the first hour or so spotlighting old and new album tracks, an encompassing contrast to recent American excursions that concentrated on one specific album.
Included was the Beatlesque “Metropolis” off Gold Afternoon Fix, a cloudy, spiritualized version of “Fly” which dates back to 1983’s Seance, and a soaring, aggressively played “Tantalized,” from the band’s Heyday. The Church has been at it long enough to know that as brilliant “Milky Way” is, “Reptile,” with its bouncy post-punk bass line and staccato guitar is the best way to end the set.
Devotees undoubtedly wish that long-time guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper was still with the band, but Ian Haug seemed up to the task, especially (and perhaps unsurprisingly) on the material he recorded. This was evident as The Church encored with the first song he co-wrote with the band after joining, “Miami,” and how the down-tuned melodrama fit in so well with the rest of the set.
“The Unguarded Moment” was the lone throwback to the band’s debut, and to say it has aged well is an understatement. As the crowd sang along, you could have sworn it was in the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie. It dissolved into “Space Saviour,” nearly six minutes of droning feedback that ended the set.
Those final two tracks tied the unique duality of The Church together. The band could have been a cult dream-pop act or it could have been a hit maker. Instead, they have a massive catalogue that sounds like hits and a passionate fanbase that reacts accordingly. Truly the best of both worlds.