Last night I went to a gig at a Canberra institution - Smith's Alternative Bookshop - the weirdest, funniest, most entertaining gig I've been to in some time, and terrific value for $25.
Steve Kilbey from the Church also has some claim to being a Canberra institution - having spent his teenage years in Canberra and starting his musical career here. So it was no surprise really that the show was all hits and memories. Steve brought with him his memories of high school, buying his first guitar, and the influences of Marc Bolan (T-Rex) and David Bowie. He'd arrived as an English boy of 10. Like a European migrant remembers his home country as it was at the time he left, Kilbey's memories of Canberra were fixed in time, in this case the 70s and 80s. A time when most school leavers drifted into the public service and then measured themselves by the level they rose to (in Steve's case a /2/3). By all accounts (well all of Steve's anyway) he was a bit of a wild boy then. And at 58 a wild boy he remains.
This visit to Canberra coincided with some very public ramblings from Steve in which he threatens to leave his band, the one he formed thirty odd years ago. The trigger, we were told, was the arrival of a cheque for $100. Most of the band's earnings having been taken over the years as the music industry's cut. Who can tell why a long standing issue had suddenly boiled over, but three hours of venting on the drive from Sydney to Canberra had led to a sunburnt arm, a raspy voice, and a distracted performance. We heard a few of the hits (Under the Milky Way, Unguarded Moment) though the musical experience was more impressionist than true to the songs. Some songs were barely started before Steve interjected with anecdotes - mostly very funny stories about Canberra. Some songs were started but then stopped when Steve was unhappy with his playing or singing. And just as he was excusing himself and his lost voice, there were some songs he played so intensely he lost himself inside them.
We heard that he is not modest, that he has produced thirty odd albums. He confessed to not being a good singer or musician. He spoke of AFL football, and politics and debating. We learnt that he had debated with the ACT team, and that they had been thoroughly beaten by Malcolm Turnbull and the boys from NSW. We learnt that his family had billeted Malcolm and that his mother thought he would be Prime Minister one day, and that she is still waiting for this. Steve declared his interest in being the Governor General, or a comedian.
Through all of his stories of growing up and coming of age, I felt I had been taken back to small town Canberra of the seventies. That you would catch a bus across town to buy a record, and then savour the writings on the record sleeve on the bus ride home. For Steve it was a trip to Manuka to buy a T-Rex album. I remember catching the bus to Civic to collect an album I'd won in a radio competition - Deep Purple. Something of the smoke wafting into the bookshop, reminded me of the Canberra Day Rock concerts that were held in Civic and at the Showgrounds in the mid seventies, and of cider and great live music at Floyds at Woden. I wonder if Steve watched those gigs, or played there?
There was talk of the possible future gigs in Canberra, probably part of the upcoming centenary. I hope Steve is able to sort out his issues with the record company, and to stay with The Church so they can play these performances. It would be great to see him again and to hear the music with the band. In the meantime I have the CD I bought at the end of show - Garage Sutra - produced only a few years ago. It has been the perfect gentle backdrop to a rainy day in Canberra today. You can hear the influences of the seventies British psychedelic rockers on it, and get a feel for Steve's poetic sensibility and fascination with ancient worlds past. At Smith's bookshop last night his show was perfect - poetry that held many of the moments that have moved us to this time.