Seeing Dirty Three perform live is a deeply strange experience—and not just because of violinist Warren Ellis’s brilliantly madcap antics. It’s strange because the band’s music has a solitary, late-night cast to it, and hearing those same sounds fill a sold-out ballroom is, well, just plain disconnecting.
The band’s rolling, melancholy music isn’t something you’d play at a party, more what you’d play after everyone leaves. Live, the effect is impressive, but, like seeing a tiger at the zoo, there’s a disappointing sense of unfulfilled potential.
Of course, Dirty Three in a cage is still more intense than most bands left free to roam. Ellis’s simple, mournful melodies soar atop the ringing, reverberating chords of Mick Turner’s guitar and Jim White’s cymbal-heavy drumming with the foreboding grace of an albatross circling a moonlit sea. This is not light music.
The sensibility is similar to a rock version of a Mark Rothko or Caspar David Friedrich painting: awe-inspiring immensity, the beauty and terror of one’s place in the grand of scheme of things.
Lying in bed with headphones on, the repetitive pitching and rolling of the music works like a hypnotist’s pocket watch. Live, such mesmerizing back and forths are a lot harder to get going. But if the realities of performance compromise the intimacy of their music, the band puts on a spectacle that your strangest dreams would be hard pressed to match. And the success of that spectacle is almost wholly due to the presence of Ellis.
With his long dark hair and devilish goatee, Ellis created a dramatic image, lurching back and forth in time to the music. He often stood on one leg or added the occasional kick for emphasis. His presence is a striking reminder of how magically dramatic the violin can be. As the strings of his bow whipped in the red light and his arm moved in long, graceful lines, it was easy to imagine him a modern day Paganini, whispers of black magic and deals with the devil following him from town to town.
Were it not for Ellis, it might have been something of a slog to stand through an hour of his band’s slow, cyclical music, but his warped and surreal between-song banter provided a much-needed counterweight to the night’s heavy emotionality. (And it should be required listening for all musicians who go mute between songs.)
When not delivering lengthy monologues explaining the genesis of the different songs—all of which are instrumental—Ellis explained that goatees are a more effective incitement to divorce than a hard drug addiction, invited a clever heckler on the upcoming European leg of the band’s tour, and explained that Cinders, the band’s new album, was “recorded in a studio that smelled of urine and vomit—and not ours”.
The smattering of audience members standing with their eyes closed seemed a testament to the desire many felt to capture some of that splendid isolation that the music lends itself too. But, the reality is that Dirty Three are a working band and can’t just play for an audience of one. No matter how tightly you close your eyes, it’s hard to maintain the illusion that they are—especially when the guy beside you keeps spilling beer on your shoes.