The rows of chairs on the floor should have been a tipoff. The New York stop on the current U.S. tour by Australian sparkling-guitar band the Church — on August 10th at Irving Plaza, where it is usually standing or dancing or nothing — would not be the usual twang and levitation. In fact, the only electric guitar on stage all night was Steve Kilbey's Fender bass, while guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper left their trademark Stratocasters and Rickenbackers in storage for this trip, instead using a variety of six- and twelve-string acoustics, supplemented by mandolin, Koppes' occasional Dylanesque blowing on a harmonica and a guest harpist. But drummer Tim Powles played a regular kit, with characteristic force. And there was a compelling, climbing momentum to the night that was electric in all but the amp count and climaxed in the encore — to the audience's grateful disbelief — with the first-ever live reading in New York of the Church's 1981 jangling gem, "The Unguarded Moment."
This tour, which ends August 20th in San Francisco, is a traveling version of the Church's 2004 album, El Momento Descuidado, on which the band revisited songs from their quarter-century catalog in acoustic form. Many of those were in the set tonight , including "Tristesse," from 1985's Heyday and the Church's solo American hit single, 1988's "Under the Milky Way." Tonight, the group expanded that conceit, unplugging tracks from its fine, new electric record, Uninvited, Like the Clouds ("Block," "Day 5"). Kilbey also paid tribute to Grant McLennan of fellow Aussies the Go-Betweens, who died on May 6th, with a version of "Providence," from the 1991 album the two made together as Jack Frost. The Church are, at heart and their best, psychedelic electricians, and their full-volume shows in recent years have been ringing endorsements for their stubborn longevity. But these stripped-back arrangements — virtually "Elizabethan," as Kilbey wisecracked at one point — showed how the Church continue to excel as writers as well as janglers. And don't fret: There was still plenty of reverb.