For thousands of years, Religion held people in thrall partly due to the weapon of spectacle. For the poor it was the only game in town. It was a show! The towering spires, the intricate architecture, light refracted through stained glass and the smell of incense swung from a censer. The pomp, the ceremony, the circumstance. Although the church’s power to enthral and compel in this fashion has diminished greatly, there’s still something quite evocative about being confronted with religious iconography in situ, candlelight illuminating its cruciform beams and succession of mangled, martyred saints.
Nestled amongst the overgrown surrounds of its cemetery, St. Stephen’s Church in Newtown is a sandstone echo of those days of saints, and tonight it plays host to Terza Madre, Sydney’s premier Italian torch song enthusiasts, and a band befitting of its grandeur.
And so it is that 200 odd misfits and their curious mates gathered on Saturday night to (attempt to) conceal their drinks and pay homage to music.
When you deign to put on a gig in such a space you want to come correctly. The music needs to match the mood of the hall and play friendly with the ghosts of history. The almost cloying sense of import wrung out of one by memories of sermons and sore knees.
Dead China Doll do just that. They bring the dirge. Their minimalist take on post rock is powered by motoric drums and growling analogue synths. All sinister crawl, at its worst it can be plodding, at its finest hypnotic. Tension is ratcheted up nicely through almost agonisingly long periods of repetition, calling to mind the deep bass throb of the ‘lamb of god’ mantra that so spooked me as a child. Though not as loud as it could be to really tap into the inherent physicality of such music, the sound fills the hall, bouncing off sandstone and conjuring a suitably pensive mood. They build to a pounding crescendo and are gone. And everyone steps out for a smoke.
Terza Madre have been building to this show for some time. From the unassuming environs of the Union Hotel, via the Vanguard Theatre, they have arrived tonight to a crowd swayed by past performances and word of mouth, full of expectation.
Perhaps even moreso than Dead China Doll, Terza Madre’s music aligns perfectly with the venue. If DCD brought the sinister aspect of such a space, then TM brought with them the spirit, something elegiac.
Superb musicians, the band show admirable restraint in abandoning the lexicon of rock cliché as each member puts forth an understated performance that adds to the music without overpowering the songs themselves, allowing lead singer Sonia’s voice to take centre stage. And what a voice.
The bands amplified take on the Italian Torch Song is somehow refreshing in its traditionalism, and whilst inky black, warm and uplifting in its soaring ebb and flow. Textures and dynamics are king, for whilst the stage is littered with musicians, there is space for each piece of music to languidly breathe. And build. And fall away.
Some new material seems to have been added to the set this evening, and as a whole, the show feels slower, more restrained and, possibly reverential than previous outings. Nerves surely play a part here but it works, the band now being joined by a trumpet player for some tracks, whose mournful mariachi-esque tone complements them perfectly, and by a miniature choir which brings an aura of celebration as well as heightening the sense of ceremony and strange churchy vibe of the affair.
The response approaches the rapturous, and the band can’t fail to hide a smile, as keys, strings and skins entwine.
As usual, the set strides its way towards their haunting but cheeky revision of ‘Knights in White Satin’, the choir gathers to sing Sonia a Happy Birthday (in Italian, natch), and then it’s all over. It seems surreal now. A fleeting glimpse at an alternate universe in which the Church does have all the best songs.
We will now pass the collection plate.
The sermon has ended, go in peace.